Remembering Basant: The Punjabi Kite-Flying Festival

Families would be on their rooftops as the kites would be dancing and weaving in the sky.

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Childhood nostalgia can be like an intoxicating brew that can stimulate certain senses but distort our overall perception of reality.  The colors, sounds and tastes we experience as a child are inevitably more vivid, louder and zestier in thought than when revisited in person in our latter years. Our romanticism-tinged view of the past misleads us when we want to be misled though. When adulthood can seem to burdensome and crusted over, there is no harm with occasionally opening the back door of our mental cinema and reliving simpler times. So allow me if you will to indulge in some reminiscing of such memories.

I recall myself as an adolescent in Pakistan around the mid-90s. While still corruption-ridden and behind in many respects, the Pakistan of that time seemed almost idyllic compared to the mess it has been post-9/11 and with its involvement in the US War on Terror. I was living in Islamabad but would make regular visits to Lahore, the heart of Punjab, to see my uncles and aunts from my father’s side. There was one particular occasion I would always wait for to visit there, and that was Basant.

Image source: Lahore Dispatch

Image source: Lahore Dispatch

Basant was the annual kite festival celebrated throughout the Punjab in Pakistan and North India for the onset of spring. Unfortunately, living in Malaysia where its just one yearlong season of summery monsoon, it can be hard to capture in words for locals here the excitement in the air as flowers begin to bloom following a chilly and often dreary winter. The original tradition was that Basant would be celebrated in the in the lunar month of Magha of the Punjabi calendar, around January or February.

Kite-flying is a long-standing tradition in the Punjab. Having a vast array of colors and designs dotting the clear blue skies in the form of kites is totally in line with the ebullient and passionate nature of Punjabi culture. Punjabis are known to wear their emotions on the sleeves, and many aspects of Punjabi culture, from the language to the food, are rich in their excess. Lahore of course is the complete showcase for this cultural palate.

On Basant, all families would be on their rooftops as the kites would be dancing and weaving in the sky. Pakistanis can be a competitive people, and there is an aspect of this in Basant as well. People will compete for the slickest or biggest kite, or for the longest time you can keep it in the air. But then, the ultimate pleasure would be in pulling your kite string fast and skillfully enough to cut off the string of an unfortunate neighboring airborne kite. Once that cut kite lands, it will likely become the property of someone else. And all this kite-flying throughout the day will be accompanied by drums, whistling and occasional rooftop gunfire (!) to add to the merriment.

I was a novice kite-flyer myself, so my biggest struggle was being able to launch the kite once a good breeze hit. More often than not, it would be lift for a few seconds and then nosedive. Once in the air, the challenge was to balance the kite by giving enough string to fly and then strategically pulling it back before the kite becomes limp in the air. The string itself was not easy to manage, it would often be glass-coated or like razor wire, and unless you wore sufficient buffer, you would end up with cuts on your hands. I recall meeting a few friends with battle scars to show. I didn’t have access all the time to the fancier kites, so often we would create a crude makeshift one using the plastic bag for sliced bread as a the sail and two sticks from the handheld broom as the frame.

Surprisingly, despite the widespread popularity of Basant in Pakistan, the government took the decision to ban it in 2007. Though it was a secular holiday celebrated by all people, some religious authorities had criticized the event for being inspired by Hindu festivals. While there is some substance to these claims, the government actually cited the hazards created during the event which led to deaths (either due to injuries while flying the kites or people unfortunately falling from their rooftops) as cause to stop the event. While understandable, many felt it was a step too far.

Since then, no real alternative occasion has filled the vacuum for kite-flying enthusiasts wishing to greet the new season. I am assuming many are like me, recounting the days of yore when all there was to look at the sky was triangles whizzing around.


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