Last up date:1999/02/05
Soaring to the Skies
Soaring to the Skies
Ahmedabad's renowned kite festival attracts thousands of people every year as some of the most colourful and innovative kites are seen vying for attention.
From the air it seems like the entire city is awash in confetti. Brilliant flecks of coloured paper festoon the trees, garland the temples and flutter in the air. On a closer inspection it becomes apparent that these thousand multi-coloured spangles are attached to brightly coloured strings which in turn are attached to the hands of exited four-year-old boys, cool, young men with the air of seasoned professionals, teenage girls with their long hair swaying with the wind, respectable housewives and elderly gentlemen. All scramble over the rooftops of Ahmedabad with glee, emitting occasional war whoops as they "cut" an opponent's string and bubble with light hearted gaiety that seems to have suffused the entire city.
January 14, the festival of Makar Sankranti, heralds the end of winter. It is the symbolic celebration of the winter solstice, the point traditionally considered as the beginning of the sun's northward journey. Throughout Gujarat the festival is celebrated with kite-flying and feasting and nowhere are these two activities indulged in with more passion than in the city of Ahmedabad. From the rooftops of beautiful old wooden mansions in the ancient walled city, from the terraces of modern high-rise apartment buildings and from narrow ledges and precipices on every single standing structure, kites are strung, kites are seen soaring in the wind and kites are fiercely at war attempting to cut each other's strings. Shops and offices are closed, special food is prepared and eaten all day long and a general air of festivity prevails. It is, altogether a lovely time to visit this city.
The patang (kite) holds a special place in Gujarat. Appearing in the early Rajput paintings, kites may have originally entered India with the Mughals, or perhaps through the trade links with China. Regardless of how they made their way into India, they quickly flew into the hearts and lives of every Gujarati. Young boys routinely spend most of their first twenty years either flying kites or thinking about flying kites; kite terminology has wended its way into the local idiom in dozens of forms; with restaurants, shops and other enterprises featuring the name patang. Since Maker Sankranti is a religious festival, kite-flying in India has acquired some devotional aspects. On the mourning of January 14, special grass and cooked food is brought to the temples and the neighbourhood cows are invited into the temple precincts to enjoy their own "feast". This is related both to the fact that the cows are worshipped on Maker Sankranti and to the harvest festival of the day. Kites are also presented as offerings and can seen dotting the temple facades in greater concentration as the day wears on.
The extent to which kite-flying has become an intrinsic part of Gujarati life can be seen in the way in pervades the language. The battle of entanglement, when the strings of two warring kites are entwined, is called pech ladana, and this same term has also come refer to intrigues in general. A person who is regarded as a non-starter is uncharitably called chhasia, which means a kite that that doesn't get off the ground. And those lucky (or lazy) souls who coast through life supported by the wealth or labour of others are called sahel lena, the ones who merely hold the spool of string while others do the actual flying. As many as forty such idioms have been counted by one local specialist. And Namdev, a traditional saint-poet, perhaps captured the metaphor most beautifully:
"I follow my worldly pursuits as does the kite, but my devotion to thee likens me to a string which is in your hand."
Two essential pieces of equipment for this intriguing sport consists of proper string (Madura Chain 8 is considered the best by the pros) and of course, the kites themselves. The cutting thread is coated with a mixture of ground glass and powdered rice, giving the thread a honed surface that slices through opposing strings. Since it can have an equally disastrous effect on the fingers, most of the serious participants wear@leather sheaths on their fingers, specially made by local cobblers.
The kites themselves are made of thin paper, in a few standard small triangular tail piece) " They are backed with slender frames of arched bamboo and painted with colours and designs that are always lively, often captivating and not infrequently, stunningly beautiful. One pure white kite, for instance may have a mauve tassel flying at the bottom and a delicate pink circle painted slightly off centre, while another may be touched with a thin cloud of pale green and jet-black tassel. A larger, brilliant mustard yellow kite may have a crimson ellipse dead centre and Other kites are chequered with strong primary colours, slashed with green/orange/white of the Indian flag, barely tinted with rainbow pastels, or emblazoned with one streak of vibrant purple.
These small ephemeral objects, sold by millions for few rupees each, are eloquent demonstrations of the absolute genius for colour and design that runs through all Indian art forms. The making and selling of kites is largely a Muslim enterprise while the buying is an universal activity, carried out with fervent enthusiasm by Muslims, Hindus, Jams and foreign tourists alike.
A large part of the fun of the festival revolves around the bazaars where the kites are displayed and sold. The bazaar at Tankshala Kalupur is a major area for stocking up. The best time to visit is on the night of January 13. By about 11 p.m., the place is a hot-bed of activity, and local connoisseurs are seen in great numbers until the wee hours of the morning, carefully selecting kites) strings and the small paper lanterns that carry lights aloft with night flying kites.
As with the entire festival, shopping activities are accompanied by the hearty consumption of snacks, whose tantalizing scents waft through the bazaar.
Kites generally come in sets of five. Extremely beautiful ones of the best quality can be bought for Rs. 20 or less a set. For around Rs 100, one can buy half a dozen sets in assorted shapes, sizes and colours plus several spools of string.
The actual flying of a kite is a sport which has attained the aura of an art form, and its skis are honed over many years. The placement and tying of the threads are in themselves intricate and precise skills, in which the aerodynamics of the kites are determined by the relative lengths of the string segments and the exact placement of the knot. The alternate tightening of the string, the co-ordination with prevailing wind currents, and the choosing of the proper kite for weather conditions of the moment, are all factors which are important to the performance of a seasoned sportsman and his kite. Stories of spectacular moves and successful strategies are told and retold with gusto and listened to with intense interest. The appearance of simplicity and ease is deceptive, as will be discovered by any visitor whose first kite is cut within seconds!
On any ordinary day the Gujarati is a passionate eater. On the day of the kite festival, this passion is displayed to the fullest. Til (sesame) is particularly associated with Maker Sankranti, and is eaten in the form of delicious sweet bars called til papari which are made of sesame seeds and jaggery. A delicate vegetable dish called undhiyun, puffy light purrs and special pickles are prepared throughout the day and offered with gracious hospitality to family and visitors alike.
Even as the sun goes down on January 14, the kites continue to go up. Accompanied by small lighted paper lanterns, they continue their graceful fierce battles in the sky filling the darkness above with a thousand dancing stars. A picture that remains with you forever.
The International Dimension
In January 1989, the Maker Sankranti Festival took on a new dimension with the addition of an International Kite Festival. This festival, which was organized by the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat in collaboration with the Government of Indians Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, brought to Ahmedabad champion kite-flyers from Japan, the USA and other parts of India. A special Patang Nagar (City of Kites) was erected at the old Police Stadium at Shahibaug, complete with exhibition grounds, viewing stands and a bazaar area. The visiting Japanese and American kite-flyers stole the show with masterful demonstrations and superb high-tech kites.
The city of Ahmedabad can be reached by road, rail and air from either Delhi or Mumbai. For the Kite Festival, you should plan to arrive one or two days early, so that there will be time to explore the city and the environs, shops and catch some of the excitement of festival preparations. Make sure to visit the bazaar late at night, on January 13 and be prepared to return with armloads of kites which are light and lie flat on the bottom of the suitcase. On the morning of January 14, it is essential to travel round the city, especially the old sections of the walled city.
Ahmedabad has unique restaurants, such as the modern Patangin the middle of the town, which revolves slowly on the top of a tall tower and the traditional Valhalla just outside the town. The latter, which is attached to a utensils museum and small shopping complex, recreates the ambience of a traditional Gujarati village, with extremely fine food, musicians, puppeteers and other performers.
Do not be shy about asking the staff at your hotel, new acquaintances or your drivers for recommendations on where to watch the best kite-flying. Gujaratis are extremely hospitable hosts and especially on festival day, there is a good chance that someone will invite you to their home. Then you can climb to the roof (make sure to wear comfortable shoes and trousers, in case you get the opportunity to ascend some of the extremely steep staircases in the old mansions), enjoy some of the day's special snacks, and get one or two kites of your own cut !
This special "City of Kites" is open each day of the festival from early morning till late in the evenings. Kites of varying sizes, shapes and colour from different states are sold at stalls along with accessories. Set up especially for the festival, Patang Nagar attracts hordes of avid kite-flyers who religiously patronize the stalls to replenish their stocks of kites and accessories. Visitors to Patang Nagar can also watch craftsmen at work as they demonstrate their age-old kite-making skills. Souvenirs and mementoes of the occasion can be bought at the special stalls that are set up for the purpose. A fascinating display of contemporary Indian crafts also awaits those who visit Patang Nagar. Among these are embroidered textiles, costumes, wood work and the metal work that Gujarat is famous for.
Festival of Food
This food festival features many choice items for the connoisseur. Typical Gujarati fare like Surati James, Undhiyu, Kathiawadi Bhanu is available along with delicacies from Ketch. Seasonal dishes that are popular during Uttarayan take pride of place while regional stalls offer the cuisine of other states.
History and Evolution of the Kite
200 BC: Huan Thang flew a kite at night in order to awe the army of Liu Pang of the Han dynasty in China.
100 BC to 500AD: Kites were used by the army generals to send signals and to measure the distance of enemy camps.
930AD:The earliest mention of shiroshi ( kite ) in Japanese literature where shi means paper and roshi stands for the Chinese bird.
960 to I 126 AD: Flying kites became a popular activity in China. People celebrated the ninth day of the ninth month, a day signaling the banishing of evil, by flying kites.
1542 AD: The first time the word patang found mention in Indian literature. It was used by Manzan in Madhumati, where the flight of a kite is associated with the loved one by a poet.
Marathi poets Eknath and Tukaram also described kites in their verses, where the word vavdi has been used.
1752 AD: Benjamin Franklin lifted a kite to prove that lightning was of the same electric matter as the one that generated electricity. Wooden sticks were affixed to four corners of a silk handkerchief and a projecting metal wire with a sharp edge was attached to it. When an electric cloud passed over the kite, lightning was drawn down through the pointed wire.
1870 AD: Australian inventor Lawrence Hargrave designed box kites whose stability inspired others to create power-driven aeroplanes.
1896 AD: Alexander Graham Bell designed "terra" by combining lightweight sticks. He flew the "Frost King" kite with 256 cells and improvised to have 1300 and later, 3396 cells. Around the same time Samuel Cody carried out experiments with a man carrying bi-plane gliders.
1902 AD: Cody's contemporaries, the Wright brothers, were successful in becoming airborne. Thus began the Age of Aviation.
Visitors to Ahmedabad will be treated to a cultural feast during the Kite Festival. They can watch and even participate in the famous folk dance of Gujarat, the Garba and enjoy other classical dances like Bharat Natyam, Kathak and Manipuri, performed by renowned dancers.
Excitement mounts during the kite-flying competition and the kite war between contestants, both of which call for special skills. Visitors can also take this opportunity to anticipate in contests of various kinds. Prizes will be given to the best kite entered in kite-flying contests, to those displaying special kite-flying skills, and to those who show proficiency in the skills used in the kite war.
Men, women and children can participate in the different categories of the contests. Registration forms for the same will be available at the offices of the Department of Tourism in Ahmedabad, Bombay, Delhi and other designated centres. Department of Tourism in Ahmedabad, Bombay, Delhi and other designated centres.