As a 3 or 4 yr old, I had this hunch one day that an orange colored kite that got snapped in battle with another landed on the open terrace of the house in which I was born. On going up the flight of stairs, indeed an orange kite was lying at the door way to the open terrace. And that was the earliest kite-link I could recall and the fascination continues to this day. It is the maneuverable paper/fighter kites that interest me and not the ‘dumb’ polythene ones.
Hours of my school day evenings and weekends were spent on terrace-top, watching kite-battles, flying, and even got hold of the ones that swung my way. A polythene one will always be packed for beach outings, no matter where in the world. Procuring large and colorful Pakistani and Afghani battle-lost-kites from elsewhere, I would be the lone kite-flier in the great-lawn of Central park, New York on the weekends. Maneuvering the kite close down to the weekenders lying on the lawn would make their faces lit up in glee.
Fly a kite Fly a kite
Such a pretty sight
Sheer pull of string injects life into
As it soars up touches heaven and
On nose-dive back to earth
Right left and somersault
What control have I but on let go the string
Free at last and out of sight !
But nothing quite prepared me for what’s below –
Kites literally fill the skies of Gujarat during Makara Sankranti, also called Uttarayan festival. Uttarayan, the ascent of Sun into northern hemisphere, entering the tropics thus heralding the beginning of warmer months is celebrated here in a unique manner and kites take prime time and are ubiquitous. The timing for this sport could not be any better as the skies are spotless blue and the breeze is right enough to lift the kites aloft. The whole state shuts down its regular shop and hits the rooftop
On alighting the flight in Ahmedabad, I am blown away by the colorful adornment of entire Sardar Vallahbhai Patel terminal with kites. As the taxi speeds toward the city, a bit of craning at the window reveals a sky dotted with varying hues. Kites are not just in the skies alone, but on the hands of almost everyone on the street, cutting across age, gender and faith. Trees flower nothing but kites during this time and the power-lines are embellished with trapped ones. Bill-boards and bulletin boards carry kite designs and even the idols at the temples are decorated with kite-like ornaments.
Taking advantage of this fervor, Gujarat Tourism has been organizing International Kite festival since 1989, just for two days before Sankranti as Sankranti day and the day after are altogether a different ballgame in town. The participants constitute kite flying clubs and individual enthusiasts from world over. Some 140-150 fliers from 25 plus countries that range from USA to Japan and from different states in India unleash the strings. Revelers come in droves to Sabarmati river front to take in the sights of kites of all shapes, sizes and colors, deftly maneuvered by both Indian and International fliers. The kites are in animal, from teddy bears to dragons, floral and in various other intricately crafted designs, and some even carry social messages. An eagle-like kite is swiped at by a bunch of live eagles, causing a flutter among the crowd. Some kites are so humongous and require a team of ten or more to handle. The kite fliers need to be preregistered to get in the arena. A tourism event like this is of course packed with food-court, handicraft shops, Gujarat state pavilion, games for children and rock music shows. If the legs get tired at this day-long event, the beautifully laid promenade along the Sabarmati river is the place to relax the muscles. Ahmedabad has a kite museum too where kites from 24 countries are exhibited. Gujarat Tourism does an excellent job of organizing this event with the same precision and care as they do for festivals like Navrathri, Rann Utsav and so on, not surprising for it functions in one of the most progressive states in the country.
Unlike the well-behaved polythene kites at the river front on the first 2 days, the skies of Sankranti and the day after are ruled by mean-paper-fighter kites that are out to cut anything and everything near with the aid of ground-glass-coated manja (abrasive) string. This breathtaking spectacle has to be experienced from the pol. A pol is a self-contained neighborhood with cluster of adjoining houses that have open terrace, swathed in gated narrow lanes in the old quarters. There are roughly 600 such pols still left in the city of Ahmedabad, spared by the developers. The pol certainly has an old world charm and the people who live there do reflect a warmth that may be missing in the skyscrapers. As I wander through the lanes, a Gujarati family invites me to their terrace top for a life-time experience, something I have not imagined even in my wildest dreams. As I reach the rooftop, climbing four levels of dark narrow stairways, I can not believe what I see – the sky is a canvas of thousands of kites and colors and every single terrace is filled with humanity to the hilt, thus setting the atmosphere electric. And the noise level, caused by excitement and stereo speakers set up add to the mayhem. As my host family feeds me the kites to fly, not a single one on my hand lasts more than 5 minutes as the crisscrossing manja of nearby kites cuts the string, allowing no room to step aside. There is a constant parade of snapped kites in the air, sway in flowing rhythm, while the ones traveled its distance shower all around us. Kite-fliers pay scant attention to these side attractions and are fully focused on the kites on hand. Besides, such freebies have no appeal as the families stock up 300 plus kites of various sizes and 10 plus manja-spools called phirkis for the 2 day festival. Kids running after cut-kites in other cities of India would have a field day here and end up having a handful. Triumphant cries constantly emanate from the terrace that emerge victorious in cutting other kites.
The day on the terrace starts around 8 in the morning for the entire family, while friends and neighbors join in too for group flying, thus making the occasion a social gathering which otherwise is hard to come by in these busy days. “Its a total holiday for us and we spend the whole day at the terrace” says Mrs. Parmar, a resident at the pol. A sneaky lunch break at noon includes Gujarati delicacies like Jilehbi, fafda, till-ladhu, chikkis and the traditional mixed-veggie dish made only on this day called Undhiyu. While the kites battle it out up in the skies, a Chai (tea) break is taken in the late afternoon. And as the light start to fade, a dramatic transformation sweeps across the sky, as the kites’ place is now taken by thousands of Chinese lantern that sail gently in the direction of the wind. Such lit up sky leaves a sense of surrealism as we look up in awe. The traditional Tukkal or illuminated box kites, tied in series on a single line and gets launched in the sky has now given way to these relatively easier-to-handle Chinese lanterns. Fireworks too join in this galaxy of lights. When the line of lanterns starts to recede, it is time to crank up the music and shake the legs before calling it a day. The day after Sankranti follows similar schedule but with more gusto, more kites and more lanterns as it is the last chance to exhaust the stocks on hand, as most prefer not to carry forward old stocks into a new year. The city has a massive cleaning job on hand as manja thread and torn kites are scattered all over the place.
During Uttarayan, exclusive kite markets called Patang Bazar open up and the larger ones are at Delhi Darwaza and at Raipur. These 24-hour brightly-lit markets hit the peak the night before the big days as the crowd throng here in festive spirit and lap up the supplies in packets of huge numbers. The spending spree is simply mind-blowing. The markets carry kites and accessories, such as manja-spools and protective finger-bands that help prevent cuts on fingers when flying high-tension kites. As opposed to readily available manja-spools for common enthusiasts, serious fliers go for quality, custom-made manja on the side-walk that comes at a higher price and wait-time. “We are a family of seven and we start making the kites three months before the festival. Our kites price range from Rs.40 (about $1) for a packet of 20 pieces to Rs.600 for a packet of 5 pieces. The manja-spool range from Rs. 150 to 200 for 1000 yards” says a shop owner.
Kites have a long history in the region. Indian kings found the sport both entertaining and as well an expression of their prowess, but it probably took its time before reaching the masses. Today, kite manufacturing is a serious business worth around Rs. 500 crores ($100,000,000), as claimed by the then Chief Minister Modi himself during one of the inaugurations of the festival.
Whether you are a kite enthusiast or not, the festival is worth the stiff-neck and you will no doubt find yourself flying a kite in no time. A Gujarati family at the pol will only be too happy to share their festivities even if you not know them before.
Other details like next festival date, places to eat and stay and nearby sights can be found at http://www.Gujarattourism.com
The piece was carried in India’s national daily and in an Israeli magazine –
note : still never miss when I sense something up in the sky…… do crane and look up !