After his victory over Ravan, Lord Ram along with wife Sita and brother Lakshman return to Ayodya after 14 years of exile. The people of Ayodhya in order to welcome him and celebrate his return, lit up their homes and the streets of Ayodhya with earthen lamps. Year after year the homecoming of Lord Ram to Ayodhya was celebrated like this. Thus was born the festival of lights, Deepavali. If you ask a person today what comes to his mind when he thinks of Deepavali, a significant proportion of people would reply with firecrackers. But the fact remains that fireworks in our festivals are a relatively recent phenomenon. It took a Chinese Demon, an elixir of life and finally the Italian Renaissance movement to get the fireworks to where it is today.
Legend about the Chinese New Year
The earliest known historical record about the firecracker has a close connection to a Chinese folklore about Nian; a mythical beast with a body of a Bull and the head of a Lion. According to this Legend the Nian was a ferocious beast which usually hunted deep in the mountains. But because food was scarce in the mountains during the winters, the Nian would target the Villages destroying their crops, killing livestock and sometimes even the villagers themselves. To avoid being attacked, the villagers used to keep food in front of their doors as an offering to the Nian. This continued for a long time till one day they found that the Nian had a weakness. It was scared of loud noises. But even then they had no clue about how they could defeat the beast. It was then in 200 BC that someone ‘accidently’ discovered the firecracker. Discovered because this firecracker was actually a piece of Green Bamboo. It is believed that one day someone threw a piece of Green Bamboo in to the fire when the dry fuel ran short. Long story short the bamboo rod burned and then suddenly exploded. Now thanks to science we know that this happens due to the rapid growth of the bamboo which traps the air inside its segments. So when the bamboo is burned the air expands inside the bamboo and tries to escape thus bursting the bamboo.
Now this strange sound which no one had heard before frightened people and animals alike. The Chinese reasoned that this discovery could be used to scare away the Nian who was afraid of loud noises. Thus started the Chinese tradition of welcoming the New Year by burning bamboo sticks which continues to this day. The ‘bursting bamboo’ continued to be used for another thousand years until another ‘accident’ occurred.
The Quest for Immortality
The Elixir of Life is a mythical potion which is said to grant the drinker eternal life. To the Ancient Chinese who valued life more than anything else, the Elixir of Life was one of their most important goals. In fact so important was the elixir to them that the Chinese emperors had scores of alchemist working under them trying to create one. Though they were unable to create an immortality potion, during their experiments the alchemists often stumbled upon other important creations in their quest for eternal life.
Sun Si Miao was one of those alchemists. He was heating a combination honey, sulphur and saltpeter during one such experiment when this mixture suddenly created a huge flame which burned down the shack he was working in. This explosive concoction was Gunpowder. Although initially used for entertainment purposes, the Chinese soon began to use them for warfare. Although the Song Emperor banned the sale of Saltpeter to foreigners, this knowledge was leaked and eventually reached India, the Middle East and Europe along the Silk Road. Another theory states that the Mongol Invasion was the cause to the spread of this knowledge. By the 14th Century the knowledge of Gunpowder was known across most of Asia and Europe.
The Italian Innovators
The credit to the development of fireworks to its modern form goes to the Italians. It was they who developed the fireworks to an art form. Marco Polo, when he returned from China in 1292, along with a host of other riches, also introduced the Italians to fireworks. The period of Renaissance was also a glorious time for pyrotechnic arts as well. A lot of new fireworks were created. There were Aerial Shells which when launched into the Sky exploded at the highest altitude. There were fireworks which would spin rapidly while sending out sparks in a circular fashion. There were fireworks of various shapes and sizes. By the 1830s, they also began to add trace amount of metals into the mix that gave off various colours when set alight. Thus we had fireworks of gold, silver, blue, green, red, white and many more colours.
There was high demand for such displays across the world. Initially these products were expensive and could only be afforded by the royalty and the rich. In fact they would use it to show off their wealth and power. But with the passage of time and the increasing number of manufacturers as well as the creation of newer, smaller and cheaper models designed for use in homes; the fireworks eventually made it into the homes of the common man.
In India, the fireworks industry is estimated to be worth INR 3000 crores. The town of Sivakasi in Tamilnadu is the leading manufacturer of fireworks in the country. In fact, 95 per cent of all fireworks made in the country originate from here. This quaint little town is also the second largest producer of fireworks in the world after China! There are over 500 factories which in the city of which 10 account for over 60% of the production. This industry also provides employment to more than 3 lakh people in around Sivakasi.
Nowadays you can buy a variety of firecrackers any Fireworks dealer in your city any time of the year. And it was all thanks to two accidental discoveries.