Delhi did have fire-crackers much more than 200 years ago and Haider Quli, the artillery chief, made good use of them at his haveli, now lying deserted. In Chandni Chowk is Haveli Haider Quli, whose inhabitant till February 2016 was the nonagenarian Narain Prasad. The double-story apartment he lived in was only a part of the original mansion, where now houses and shops have mushroomed and the garden that was one of its attractions has disappeared in the ensuing rabbit of a warren locality. Haider Quli was the chief of the artillery during the reign of Mohammad Shah Rangila (1719-1748) in whose reign Nadir Shah invaded Delhi and took away the Peacock Throne and Kohinoor, along with other fabulous treasure. Haider Quli got his exalted post because of his patron Hussein Ali, but later turned against his mentor and got him murdered while he was on his way home in Chandni Chowk. A boy related to him fired at one of the assailants, killing him on the spot but the others hacked the boy to pieces with their swords. It is said that Mohd Shah was also involved in the conspiracy, along with his mother as he had become wary of Hussein Ali. It was Haider Quli who organized the first fireworks in 18th century Delhi some 260 years ago under his supervision as Mir Atish, whose descendants had fireworks shops behind the Jama Masjid.
The Mughal emperors preceding Mohd Shah celebrated Diwali with illuminations but there were no fireworks as such. Possibly the only cracker was a ball of gunpowder exploded by the Mir Atish and a crude kind of Phuljhari (sparkler) for the amusement of the ladies of the harem when the Seths of Chandni Chowk were worshipping Lakshmi in their shops.
It is pertinent to remember that Babur brought guns with him when he invaded India in 1526 and on whose firepower he won the First Battle of Panipat against Ibrahim Lodi-the Sultan’s elephants running amuck at the sound of the blazing cannon and the fireballs they ejected.
Gunpowder was invented or discovered in China in the ninth century and India was practically devoid of it till AD 1250. The Mughals’ ancestor, Changez Khan had made use of gunpowder during his Mongol raids because of which it made its way into parts of Russia. Evidence of this found in the story of Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, in which the chief of the robbers Abu Hassan used gunpowder (Shaitani Rait or Devil’s Sand) to overawe his victims. Then after depositing the loot in his treasure-house Simsim, he retired to the fort, where he resided as the seemingly pious Imam Sahib, to whom people went with their complaints against Abu Hassan. The hypocrite, with his lust for the slave girl Marjina, would then march out with troops in a mock campaign to nab the robber chief.
History shows that before the Mughals some sort of atishbazi was introduced into Delhi during the reign of Nasiruddin Mahmud, Chirag Delhi. But he and other Slave kings are not known to have celebrated Diwali, which was first patronised by Mohmmad bin Tughlak. The succeeding Sayyids and Lodhis may also have willy-nilly followed the custom. Babur and Humayun had their Nauroz celebrations, but Akbar did celebrate Diwali on a grand scale because of his Rajput wives. Jahangir and Shah Jahan had an even more elaborate Diwali, with the latter emperor being bathed in waters collected from seven rivers and pandits chanting mantras while the Maulvis looked askance. However, his daughter Jahanara was not burnt during Diwali celebrations but one evening at the daily lamp-lighting. Aurangzeb, despite his orthodoxy, did observe Diwali with the Rajput chiefs coming to him with sweets and gifts. Gossip would have us believe that his first Diwali was celebrated with his beloved Hira Bai Zainabadi in his arms and offering him a cup of wine to prove his love for her. But when Aurangzeb moved as if to sip it, Zainabadi (appreciating the gesture) took away the cup from his hand. No wonder when she died an early death. Aurangzeb was devastated Jahander Shah, his grandson, celebrated Diwali with concubine Lal Kanwar in Lahore (1712), when he bought all the oil available in the city for illuminations, though fireworks were absent till Mohd Shah took over after the death of Farrukhseyar and some puppet kings.
Historians, however, fix the date when Diwali crackers became popular as 200 years from now, though the British were enjoying fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night in observance of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (the year Akbar died). Mirza Ghalib was one of those who were present at the Diwali celebrations of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who released the bluejay or Neelkanth bird as a sign that Durga was on her way home after Dussehra. But Prof Ram Nath observes that it was actually Shah Jahan who first did so. For the later Mughals fireworks were also the main observance during Shabhe-Barat, heralding the approach of Ramzan.
This display of crackers was extended to Diwali. As a matter of fact, during Mohd Shah Rangila’s reign it was a cracker thrown at the palanquin of the emperor’s jeweller, Sukh Karan that led to the March 8, 1729, shoesellers’ riot in which Rangila Piya’s favourite concubine Nur Bai, on her way back home in Chawri Bazar from the Red Fort, lost a tooth when she was hit by a stone thrown by the rioters. So Delhi did have crackers much more than 200 years ago and Haider Quli, the artillery chief, made good use of them at his haveli-now lying deserted as even the last occupant, Narain Prasad’s 94-year-old sister has left it after her brother’s death. But whenever you see the place you instinctively think of fireworks as happened during Guru Nanak’s birthday celebrations amid a crescendo of crackers despite the ban on them.