In Paintings: Diwali & A History of Firecrackers in India

This Diwali, we are exploring the many paintings that depict the celebration and ethos of Diwali while digging out the history of firecrackers.

The use of firecrackers is not new to India. While they originated in China, the crackers soon made their way into India through trade and military contact. The earliest evidence we have of fireworks in India dates back to the Mughal times. Some historians have pointed out that the knowledge of materials used to make firecrackers existed in India as long ago as 300 BC.

The Origin:

In China: Gunpowder, the prime constituent of fireworks, is made up of saltpeter (responsible for the colours), sulphur and charcoal (for prolonging the effects). This substance also finds a reference in the historic document “Book of the Kinship of the Three” written by Wei Boyang of the Han Dynasty dating back to the 2nd Century. Saltpeter and Sulphur made their debut in Chinese texts before the 1st century.

In India: Historians believe that knowledge of gunpowder existed in India as long back as the 8th century. Sanskrit texts such as the “Nitiprakasika of Vaisampayana” which was compiled in the 8th century mention a similar substance. But the potential of gunpowder to be used in fireworks had not been realised during this time. Though, historian Kaushik Roy is of the opinion that ancient India was aware of the existence of saltpeter as “agnichurna” or powder that creates fire. Kautilya’s Arthashastra (compiled during 300 BCE -300 CE) bears references to saltpeter.

diwali firecrackers krishna and radha celebrating with a feast
Krishna and Radha Enjoying a Feast and Fireworks [Kishangarh, early 19th century] collection of LACMA

The Use of Firecrackers:

The first evidence of gunpowder being used for fireworks display dates back to the Tang dynasty in China during 700 CE. The Chinese believed that the noise created by gunpowder used inside a bamboo tube would keep evil spirits away. Therefore, the use of gunpowder for fireworks became common practice especially in Chinese celebrations.

In India, the use of firecrackers was not limited to Hindu festivities such as Diwali but also found their way into Shab-i-Baraat, the Muslim festival.

“Fireworks on the Night of Shab-i Barat Feast”, Folio from the Davis Album; 18th century. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Firecrackers traveled the world:

Mughal Diwali
Celebrating with Fireworks, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Late Mughal, Muhammad Shah period; or Oudh; Second quarter of the 18th century Credit: San Diego Museum of Art.

By the 13th century, military pursuits of the Ming Dynasty in China introduced gunpowder to Southeast Asia, Eastern India and the Arab world. Military strategies were passed on to the Delhi Sultanate from East Indian tribes – and so was the use of gunpowder. While the substance was mainly used for warfare, the use of it for Fireworks was also learned from China.

When Fireworks became part of Indian Celebrations: Diwali & More

From the 15th Century, there is evidence of a large number of Mughal paintings which depict the use of fireworks in grand celebrations. The 1633 painting depicting the marriage of Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh (son of ShahJahan) is one such evidence.

In 1953, PK Gode, a historian and the first curator of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, wrote The History of Fireworks in India Between AD 1400 and 1900. He records Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa’s account of fireworks being used to bring in a wedding of a Brahmin couple in Gujarat in 1518. This indicates wide availability of firecrackers at that time.

This magnificient Painting is a brilliant depiction of the marriage procession of the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh the eldest son of Shahjahan. Emperor Shahjahan participating in an occasion of jubilation by tying on Dara Shikoh’s head the same sehra which was tied on his own head by his father, emperor Jahangir. Dara Shikoh is seen riding a brown stallion in the centre of the painting. He is followed by three attendants. Shah-jahan seen with a nimbus is just behind Dara Shikoh. Most of the invitees are on horses. The bride’s side is seen receiving the marriage procession with magnificient firework display. Source: Wikipedia, National Museum

In his celebrated book on medieval India, historian Satish Chandra described the marriage ceremony of Adil Shah. Adil Shah was the ruler of Bijapur in the seventeenth century. A total of Rs. 80,000 was spent on fireworks alone.

Another painting from 1675-1700 circa depicts Radha and Krishna enjoying Diwali festivities – though just with lighting oil lamps. The tradition of gambling on Diwali night makes an appearance here.

Radha Krishna Diwali
One of a series of eight paintings bound in an album. The series are from a ‘Baramasa’ set or ‘Songs of the seasons’. Radha and Krishna stand on a white terraced pavilion in a house lit with oil lamps indicating the celebration of the festival of Diwali. The black sky studded with stars, and nearby town lit with lamps (on which they gaze) indicate a night scene. Radha and Krishna are shown again in the same architectural setting in a room playing a board game that looks like chess. Radha is seen making a move while lady musicians entertain the couple. Gambling at Diwali is a ritual in order to propitiate Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth. Credit: British


Diwali fireworks
Pahari style painting depicting lovers celebrating Diwali with fireworks. 1800 circa. Credit: British Museum


Use of fireworks in celebrations was popular during the British rule in India as well. By the nineteenth century, the rising demand for fireworks led to the establishment of factories. The first fireworks factory in India was set up in Kolkata in the nineteenth century. It later moved to Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu.


fireworks in british india

1790-1800: Watercolour of a firework display on a bright moonlit night outside the Agna Mahal in Murshidabad. In 1704, the Nawab of Bengal transferred his capital here from Decca; in 1757 a series of military disputes between the Nawab and the English East India Company resulted in the rise of English supremacy in Bengal. Although the town of Murshidabad continued to house the residence of the Nawab, it was no longer a place of political power. This drawing shows the festivities along the riverside with the gateway leading to the Chandni Chowk and Munny Begum’s mosque in the background. Men are letting off fireworks in the foreground, on the west bank of the river. The Agna Mahal was part of the Nawab’s palace, the Hazarduari (Palace of a Thousand Doors) built in the 1830s by General Duncan McLeod of the Bengal Engineers. Credit: British Library

Featured Image: Ladies Playing with Fireworks, school of Mir Kalan Khan, Lucknow, circa 1780; Sotheby’s.

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