Sivakasi or Liu Yang, the cracker capitals bustle with activity during this time of the year, writes S. ANNAMALAI
When you see the night sky light up with dazzling colours this Deepavali, thank that anonymous Chinese cook. It was he who accidentally (!) threw saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and charcoal, common kitchen ingredients, into the fire one day. That was 2000 years ago. Up went the flames with a bang marking man's first tryst with fireworks. Firecrackers, however, came about 1000 years later. After the discovery, a mixture of the three flame emitting chemicals (now known as gunpowder) was packed into bamboo poles and thrown into the fire. Under heat and pressure, the bamboo stumps burst, emitting flames.
The Chinese named the mixture `huo yao' (fire chemical) and believed that the noise, `bian pao', had the ability to ward off evil spirits. The bamboo pack, or the `bursting bamboo' (`pao chuk'), is believed to be the earliest version of the firecracker. A Chinese monk, Li Tian, who lived about 1000 years ago near Liu Yang in Hunan Province, is supposed to be the father of modern day firecrackers. Local people built a temple for Li Tian during the Song Dynasty. The Chinese calendar observes April 18 as the day of invention of firecracker. Over the years, firecrackers were not only used to drive away evil spirits but also during prayers and celebrations. Taoist monks improved the fireworks by experimenting with various chemicals in combination with gunpowder and developed it into a profession.
Later day Chinese used their knowledge to develop `fire arrows', a deadly weapon used in war. These fire arrows exploded after hitting their targets. During this period, those with knowledge of making firecrackers were a venerated lot in China, like the village schoolmaster elsewhere.It was Marco Polo who brought the knowledge of fireworks to the Middle East during one of his visits to China. From the Middle East it was taken to England by European Crusaders. In 1560, European chemists improved the explosive power of gunpowder by arriving at the right mix of chemicals. But the credit for adding colour and glamour to fireworks goes to the Italians, who developed aerial shells. Pyrotechnic development was rapid during the Renaissance when Italy competed with Germany in producing new products with the application of new technologies.Today, fireworks manufacturers have given shape to a variety of aerial shots that spew hitherto unseen colours in the sky.China is the leading exporter of fireworks in the world and its products are subject to quality checks by the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory.What is the connection between China and India then? Sivakasi, affectionately referred to as `Kutti Japan', is the equivalent of Liu Yang City in the Hunan Province of China. It matches the products of China in number and quality. Every Sivakasi manufacturer has an answer to his Chinese counterpart. The similarities between the two places are also many. Sivakasi is the cracker capital of India and Liu Yang City of China. Both the places could not entertain any other industry due to their geographical location and climatic condition. The case of Sivakasi is worse as its arid terrain does not give room for even profitable agriculture. In the Chinese city, there are about 400 units spread over an area of 200 km. In Sivakasi, there are around 550 fireworks factories in a radius of 35 km. The only difference is that the Chinese units are subsidised by the Government and they enjoy several concessions. Since 1922, when 17-year-old P. Ayya Nadar and 19-year-old A. Shanmuga Nadar, the founders of fireworks industry in Sivakasi, went to Calcutta to learn the process of making matches, it has grown taller and taller. Today, the leading manufacturers have some kind of tie-up with Chinese units. Few have established their manufacturing facility in China. The Sino-Indian bond is becoming thicker by the year in giving expression to sparkling colours in the sky.