By Dr Nandkumar M Kamat
The whole week of Divali would see dazzling fireworks displays. The children just can’t wait to use the crackers, fountains, rockets or bombs. All over Goa, various items of fireworks are collectively known by the Portuguese word – ‘fog’ from the Portuguese word ‘fogos’.
Fireworks were a gift from the Chinese to Goa. There is a little understood Chinese and Arab connection behind it.
Fireworks did not reach Goa from British India or Europe. The Portuguese who introduced western warcraft, guns and cannons in India called the fireworks - “fogos de artificio”. It was only after they had contacts with mainland China and Japan that the Portuguese also learnt about Chinese pyrotechnology. Then their colony at Macao became an important trade centre which exported various goods to Goa including novelties from mainland China.
The traditional Goan pyrotechnicians are known as Fogeris - who manufactured “fogo de artificio” for rituals and festivals. Only a few families of Fogeris are now left in Goa. Fireworks are based on self igniting, self sustaining production of fire - the pyrotechnological principles.
From time immemorial Indians have worshipped light, radiance and fire. Fire has been used to clear vast tracts of forests in ancient India. The Adi parva of Mahabharata has a strange story of master archer Arjuna and Lord Krishna helping the lord of fire - Agni to burn down the Khandava forest where incidentally Indraprastha was built and where the capital - New Delhi stands today. Environmentalists and animal rights activists need to ponder over this story. Basically it tells about the foundation of urbanism in north India. The burning of Lanka by Lord Hanuman is another mythological example of the use of fire in ancient India. Zoroastrians worship fire. They built fire temples in India. Sacred rituals need sacred fire - the ‘homas’.
The small state of Goa hides many mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Fireworks were never a novelty in Goa. Medieval Goa had the first credit in India (with possible but yet unproven exception of Cochin and Calicut) of introducing the fireworks of Chinese origin. The proof of ancient Chinese contacts is found in the objects displayed at the modest museum of major seminary of Pilar. The documentation of these valuable cultural artefacts has been done in Fr Cosme Jose Costa’s illustrated colour monograph - ‘The Heritage of Govapuri’ (2002). Discovery of a piece of glazed Sancai pottery from the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) was astonishing because it indicated very old contacts with China. Gunpowder was discovered in China during this dynasty. The Ming pottery found at Pilar from Ming dynasty (1368-1644) which had sent seven large fleets between 1405 and 1430 in the Indian Ocean under the famous navigator Zheng He (1371-1435) leaves no doubt about a booming maritime trade between Goa and China.
Govapuri or Gopaka - the area around Pilar-Goa Velha was an international port for at least 300 years having trade with the east African coast, the Persian Gulf region, Maldives to China. Various Saivaite and tantric rituals in Govapuri demanded heavy consumption of camphor and aromatic Frankincense - items which had to be imported -camphor from Borneo and Frankincense from Dhofar province of Oman. The word ‘Dhoop” for frankincense originates from Dhofar province famous for its’ monopoly over natural frankincense production. The Arab traders in Govapuri monopolised the trade in both these commodities. Obviously they depended on Chinese suppliers to transport camphor from Borneo to Goa. Camphor is also used because of its’ high flammability in fireworks. The first fireworks displays in Goa could have taken place in Govapuri under the Chinese influence, probably during the 11th century.
Goans were already familiar with Chinese rockets used in fireworks. Govapuri was a cosmopolitan centre during this period. It is a practice in Goa to make announcement of the commencement of religious functions or village feasts and festivals by exploding –garnal a crude country explosive. It creates an ear shattering sound which can be heard at large distances. Such signals were used in Goa even before the arrival of the Portuguese guns and cannons. The feasts of major churches in Goa begin and end with dazzling fireworks - a tradition perhaps retained by the Gaunkaris from the days of forgotten Chinese encounters and later accepted by the Portuguese.
Fogeris of Goa use terracotta containers for manufacturing the fireworks which clearly indicates the original Chinese influence. But they have a limited range of fireworks displays to offer due to difficulty in sourcing the pyrotechnical chemicals. To generate various colours and effects, various chemicals and powders need to be used. But this is a modern improvement which the Goan fogeris could not adopt. Their art was limited to use of salts of sulphur, nitrates, potassium, sodium, calcium, iron, copper and phosphorus.
After the Portuguese permitted import of firework items like fire crackers, the art and science of local fireworks production received a setback. After Goa’s liberation, the markets were flooded with fireworks from Sivakasi and other places. Today one sees a mind boggling range of items of recreational fireworks on display in markets. Divali is the major festival in India which sees popularity of recreational fireworks. It is a festival of radiance and the nights are filled with dazzling fireworks display. Besides there is a practical dimension of using fireworks after the end of monsoon. There is a huge spurt in obnoxious insect population which is controlled by the strong fumes of burning sulphur and phosphorus. Phototropic insects burn themselves in the flames.
Most of the fireworks are hazardous for children. The gases could cause respiratory distress. There are fire hazards and burn injuries. So safety comes first when lighting fireworks. That’s why the Gaunkars of Goa never used fireworks without engaging the traditional fogeris. People used to assemble on a sacred open spot in the village to witness the foger’s pyrotechnical displays. A safe distance was maintained between the display site and the crowds. This tradition is still seen in the feast of Panaji church. Today Taleigao is the most discussed place in Goa for public fireworks display thanks to sponsorship from the pyrotechnophile local MLA. Firework displays over the Mandovi River during International film festival have become popular with tourists. But we have forgotten Goa’s thousand years old Chinese connection to fireworks. Let it be recalled during the Divali festival.