First published on August 5, 2008 on Asia Inch.
Come January and pink is in the air across towns and cities in Gujarat. Rows of small foot-path shops start lining up the sides of roads with manja being made in bright colours: Uttarayan, the kite-flying festival is approaching! Among the numerous small and big festivals that Gujarat celebrates, this one is certainly one of the most looked forward to: rarely do the joys of sport, of secular celebration and community togetherness converge as in Uttarayan, showing the continuing rootedness of Indian people in forms and expressions of traditional value.
The word Uttarayana is believed to have come from the joining of two Gujarati words- Uttar meaning ‘north’ and Ayana meaning ‘coming’, and marks the day when the sun starts its northern movement, bringing in the summer months. Uttarayan more generically refers to the six months between Makar Sakranti, falling on January 14, and Karka Sankranti, falling on July 14. The period from July 14 to January 14 is called Dakshinayan, when the sun travels south (dakshin literally meaning ‘south’).
This is harvest time in most parts of the country, and Makar Sakrantiis celebrated often as a harvest festival variously across India- as Lohri in Punjab, Bhogali Bihu in West Bengal and Assam, Pongal in Kerala and among Tamils, Sakranthi in Karnataka and Uttarayan in both Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Thousands of people come up on their terraces to fly kites in cities all over Gujarat and attempt to cut others’ kites in a sport of competitive fun. Kapyo Che(literally meaning ‘I have cut it’) is a phrase often used to mark the victory of one kite-flyer who cuts another’s. Entire families participate on one side as one flys the kite, another helps lift it while others hold the manja. The skyline is dotted with kites of different sizes and colours, and revelries are spiced up with the playing of loud music of current bollywood and popular numbers, as trademark snacks do the rounds. Winter foods like sesame seed, groundnuts and jaggery are used to make fresh sweets like ladoos and chikkis, and the winter delicacy- Undhiyu, a preparation comprising several winter vegetables. Another favourite snack made at this time are muthiyas, small fritters made with chick-pea flour and grated bottle gourd.
The celebrations are kick-started in the early hours of the morning of January 14th, and extend to the next day, which is celebrated as Vasi Uttarayan (Vasiliterally meaning ‘stale’). The flying of kites continues into the post-dinner evenings as lanterns are hung on the thread of big kites and flown. The night sky comes alive with glamour and splendour as these tukkals gently sway with the breeze.
The manja is coated with glass to enable it to cut other threads, and achieving such superior manja is a skill in itself, as is kite-making.
In recent times however, there has been a growing concern over the use of glass paste to coat the manja, which at times causes injury to people in moving traffic as well as the birds flying in the sky. Many small NGOs and animal-protection organizations have for this reason started campaigns to create such awareness. Volunteers are invited to nurse injured birdsand animals. A recent introduction in the market has therefore been of organic manja which is coloured with natural dyes and is not as razor sharp as the traditional one made from glass paste. They have provided a good- although expensive as of yet- alternative.
Uttarayan is essentially considered of Hindu origins, yet kite-flying acquired a special value in Indian history as the sport of the kings and Nawabs of northern India, both Hindu and muslim. What was known to be a elitist form of sport- its making and flying often considered an art- soon became popular with the masses. It is for this reason that kite-flying is popular across the country, not always as a festival alone. While in Haryana it becomes popular in the same time as in
Gujarat around the festival of the spring festival Basant Panchami, it is not in itself considered a festival. In Delhi, it is flown in the days around Independence Day falling on 15th august, and must therefore have more contemporary origins associating kites as a symbol of freedom and national integrity. In northern India, kite flying is called Patang Baazi, and is also celebrated along with the festival of Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the sister-brother relationship in India.
Kites are here, normally called Patang and the string dor, although in Punjab they are referred to as Guddi and manjha respectively. The bamboo/wood roll on which the manjha is rolled is called Charkhadi or Hujka. Kites are made of special thin paper, most often referred to as Kite paper in numerous colours. A common phenomena is also to make kites from cheap cellophane and plastic material which is normally used in packaging of products.
This is recycling at its best! The thin cotton thread for dor is often locally prepared, and further a paste of an adhesive and finely powdered glass is spread on it. Additives like pigeon’s droppings, egg and sea surf are further added to make the dor sharper. Often enough, wax is also coated on the thread to make it difficult to cut.
Kites have varied names according to their shape and colour combinations. Some of them are Danda (stick), Pari (fairy), Gilasa, Chand, Tara(moon and star), Shakkar Para, Chhapan Chhuri, Tiranga(triclor), Budda (old man), Patiyal and Lepo.
Kites have been historically used for scientific experiments and several attempts to develop aircrafts often first experimented with man-flying kite mechanisms. Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers and Lawrence Hargrave have all reportedly used kites for such experiments.
Today kite flying is most popular in China, Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand. In Afghanistan it is called Gudiparan Bazi, although like many other cultural activities, this was banned by the Taliban. It is popular in smaller numbers in the western countries, where it has achieved an art-from status. Several international kite-flying festivals around the world attract kite enthusiasts from around the world, and an annual international festival of this kind is held in Ahmedabad on the day of Uttarayan.