The recent firecracker ban during the festival of Diwali by many states has brought out an unlikely debate over the origin of gun powder. The right-wing ‘Hindu Dharm Khatre mein hai’ (Hindu religion is in danger) believers on the microblogging site Twitter were as usual vocal over the ban of the sale and bursting of firecrackers during Divali and not during festivals of Muslims and Christians. The liberal Indians were quick to point at them for promoting Chinese gun powder over the festival of lights which was how the festival was celebrated in the past as per translated texts of today. Although the right-wing was unable to associate crackers with the ancient texts they pointed out the references of gun powder being mentioned in a book by Dr Gustav Oppert, the German Indologist and Sanskritist.
As per the liberals, the gun powder was invented in China and brought to India by the Mughals (Mongols). “The firecrackers and fireworks were invented by the Chinese and they were brought to the Indian subcontinent by the mighty Mughals,” reasoned many Indian Twitter handles. The official history of the world states that the gun powder was invented in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists by accident. The use of Saltpetre ( potassium nitrate) mixed with sulphur is known from texts from 492 BC.
There are many modern references to the lack of knowledge of gun powder in ancient India. Swami Vivekananda, one of the most revered saints of India whom even the right-wingers also look up to, wrote in one of his epistles: “The Hindus had been conquered by the Mohammedans due to the Hindus’ ignorance of material civilization, gunpowder and cannon”.
The right-wing supporters have quoted the book ‘On the weapons, army organisation, and political maxims of the ancient Hindus, with special reference to gunpowder and firearms by Gustav Oppert. 1880.’ The book mentions two ancient Sanskrit manuscripts, Nītiprakā’sikā and Sukranīti relating to weapons and military organisation, have references to guns and canons ( Details can be read here ).
WJ Palmer, the famous American Civil Engineer (1836-1909), has a different view. As per Palmer, there are superficial deposits of reh in the Indian Ganga Yamuna river bed. India distinguished between sarika ksara (also known as reh), sodium-based alkaline salts of detergent properties, and yava kasra plant-based potassium (pot-ash) salts. Yet there was considerable confusion between non-hygroscopic potassium nitrate (KNO), the chief constituent of saltpetre and (later) gunpowder, and hygroscopic (hence deleterious) sodium/calcium salts such as sodium sulphate, carbonate etc. China was the first nation to clearly distinguish hsiao (solve) shih (stone) identified by Dr Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a British biochemist and historian, as potassium nitrate, from similar salts of sodium and calcium.
Dr Needham’s works also provide a link between China and India over saltpetre. Dr Needham believed that Indians had independent knowledge of saltpetre. He writes in his book, (Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and London) that an Indian monk had visited China in 664 AD bringing with him some Sanskrit sutras for translation. The monk found the availability and use of saltpetre in China. Dr Needham concluded that it is not really any evidence for Indian primacy in the stated subject due to the Indian-Chinese chemical contacts during the Thang period and the mutual indebtedness of China and India. Needham couldn’t find a word in classical Sanskrit language indicating saltpetre. The word sodaka (soda in Hindi, Bengali etc.) were derived from the Persian word shuraj. Barud was also a late entrant into the Indian languages. He concludes that ancient India knew purple flame producing saltpetre but failed to utilize it for producing gunpowder. Specific to firecrackers, a Chinese emperor Yang-ti (603 – 617 AD) from the Suy Dynasty introduced fireworks possibly firecrackers.
Other than the 664 AD reference to the Indian Monk’s travel to China, there are no outside references to India possessing firearms or crackers until around 910 AD reference made by an Arab Al-Razi. Al-Razi described an Indian salt which was black, friable and had a little glitter. Indian Right-Wingers too put up references to literature that gun powder was known in India before Mongols came in. The first one is Kautilya’s Arthashastra, believed to be written between 300 BC and 300 AD, mentioning saltpetre being used as a weapon of war. Saltpetre along with some other ingredients was used for generating poisonous smoke to disorient the enemy. The second reference is from a Chinese text from the 7th Century AD, which is possibly the same which Dr Needham referred to. The third is a paper by M Langles (French Institute, 1798) which says that the Arabs received gun powder and knowhow from India, which as per the author was ‘the original seat of invention’. This view is accepted by Johann Beckmann in his book ‘A history of inventions and discoveries’ published in 1846. The fourth reference is to Ātharvaṇarahasya, a dissertation on the literature of the Av., compiled at the beginning of this century, by Dhīragovindāśarman. One paragraph in Ātharvaṇarahasya states ‘as fire prepared by the combination of charcoal, sulphur, and other materials…’, but does not mention saltpetre. Rest of the references they mention is from 12th century onwards including invading army of Amir Taimur being greeted with firearms. Unless there is something more credible, there is no authoritative text to prove that India made gun powder or firecrackers before the Chinese.
Twitter banters aside, there have been some credible work done on the subject by Parashuram Krishna Gode (PK Gode, 1891-1961), a well-known Sanskrit and Prakrit scholar and the first curator of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. PK Gode’s research points out the availability of guns in Bengal around 1406 AD as documented by a Chinese visitor Mahahun. Mahahun also found the paper in Bengal which was picked up by the Arabs in the 8th century from China and introduced in India in the 12th century. Abdur Razzaq, a representative from Persian King, visited Vijayanagar between April to December 1443 and mentions the use of pyrotechny fireworks during the October Mahanavami festival. As per a Sanskrit text Akasabhairava-tantra, Vijaynagar procured nalikastra or the gun before the collapse of the empire in 1550 AD. The Muslim’s used the artillery to the best effect against Vijayanagar. Rest of PK Gode’s research is on time period beyond 1406 AD and not prior to that.