India is a country that boasts of a multitude of festivals. Every community, religion, sect have their set of beliefs, occasions and events that are celebrated with much pomp and splendor. It would take possibly more than a hundred posts if I were to experience and pen down all the festivals and happy events that are celebrated in India but hopefully, I shall achieve that aim someday.
For this post, I would like to acquaint you all with one such hugely popular and much loved festival celebrated majorly in the state of Gujarat and with a lesser fervor but celebrated nonetheless in the other states of India. It is the “Kite festival” or more commonly known as “Uttarayan” in India.
This festival is celebrated every year on the 14th of January 2016 and if you are in India at that time, it would be a crime to not visit Gujarat and be a part of the merriment.
My ancestry is from Gujarat and we can safely boast of having more than a 100 relatives just in the city of Ahmedabad itself although I have been born and raised in Mumbai. To take a count of our connections in our home town in Gujarat would give a number rather unbelievable and hence, I leave it at that.
Anyway, having so many connections in Gujarat, it would be impossible that I wouldn’t have been a part of Uttarayan a few times in my life. It is an experience one has to undergo and feel rather than me describe it here. Only then, justice can be done to it.
A few years back, I spent Uttarayan with our relatives in Ahmedabad. The festivities usually start almost a month in advance for the children there. The streets start lining up with “Manjha” or the “Kite thread” weavers displaying their wares and believe me, it actually requires an expert eye and experience to understand which would be the best thread. It should withstand high air pressure and not break when pulled into the air by the kite. It should also be sharp enough to cut someone else’s thread (flying a kite is no joke. It’s actually a science and I am terrible at it). The thread is coated with powdered glass and that is what makes it so sharp. One can easily cut a finger on it and I am proof of that experience.
Kites start appearing in the markets. There are actually designated Kite markets in Ahmedabad that set up shop every night for about 15 days prior to Uttarayan. It is another experience altogether (and which I think I will pen down in another post lest this one becomes too long to bear).
14th January is an official holiday in Gujarat. On the first stroke of sunlight that day, you will find every child in the house missing. Well…you will find them on the top floors or the terrace area of the buildings setting up their wares and by that, I mean, fixing their kites and manjhas.
As I mentioned earlier, kite flying is a Science. The Manjha has to be perfectly tied to the kite. There are certain measurements that need to be understood (No, you don’t need a measure-tape but every child and adult flying kits have an instinctive understanding of the measures of tying the manjha/thread to the kite). If not, the kite will simply not fly.
On 14th morning, we made our way to the terrace of the building. Kites lay in one corner, children working their way with their Manjhas, typing special tapes to their fingers to avoid cuts from the glass coated thread and finally, keeping a hawk eye on the building terraces in the immediate neighborhood for possible kite cutters and competition.
Now, just to explain, the fun of flying a kite is to actually get it extremely high in the sky and then, find someone else’s kite that you can cut using your kite and claim as yours. This is Gujarati has a special term called “KAIPOCHE” which means, “Its cut”. It is an extremely friendly match and no one takes offence when their kite is cut. It is all in jest.
So, that day, we set up our stock on the terrace. The other people from the building that we were in slowly started trickling in. We ultimately were about 20 people on the terrace with anything that one would need for a good party. Someone had bought a music player and the local Radio channel was set on a high volume blaring the current popular Bollywood songs. No one actually bothered which songs were played but it somehow charged up the atmosphere for a good kite season. Men, women and children with black shades (Yes, you do need them at all times when flying a kite to not get the sun into your eyes else you could get your kite cut by someone in the next building) were all up there.
The men geared up with advice on how to tie the kites or helped the younger generation with setting up their kites and making sure they actually flew in the air (well, at least made it upto a few feet high) and if the kid was expert enough, he would then take it forward from there and soar it high in the sky. The sky was a brilliant riot of every color imaginable.
The women made sure no one ran out of food on the terrace. Every aunt that I knew had made something at home – mainly chikkis (which are traditionally made during Uttarayan) or as in English they are known as “Dry fruit brittles”. Then, there were “Ber” fruits which basically help you pass time when you are waiting for the air to pick up or even just gossiping around with someone. Sugarcane, Guavas, Gathiyas, Kachoris and other goodies made their appearance too. And then, some generous soul got piping hot tea. Imagine this, a chill in the air, a bit of breeze and then someone offers you piping hot Masala tea. How can you even say no to that?
My uncle tried teaching me how to fly a kite (he basically handed me a half air borne kite) and I was terrible at it. A couple of attempts later, I gave up because it became a bit of a sad show watching 5-year-old kids fly it better than me in a snap. I stuck to watching the others and getting my hands on the delicious food that everyone had bought on the terrace.
Lunch time neared and along with it came the traditional vegetable “Undhiyu”, a vegetable synonymous with Gujarat. It is a blend of all winter vegetables in a chilli and coconut based gravy. A good Undhiyu making takes some serious skills. Other accompaniments included pooris, rice dishes, sweets and fresh buttermilk.
One would think after such a heavy lunch, everything would get quiet. Well, it did for the older people but the children were kind of impossible to hold back. After all, Uttarayan was just once a year celebration.
The festivities continued during the day. As evening set in, another battle was being strategized. This is called the Night Lantern Battle. Paper lanterns are lit with small candles inside and these are carefully tied onto the kite string as the kite starts soaring into the air.
Now, this is an extremely Scientific and strategized affair too. The main kite has to be large and strong, the thread that is tied to the kite must be strong enough to bear the air currents as well as bear the weight of the lantern (Sometimes, the thread is doubled up too for this) and lastly, there will always be 3 to 4 support kites that will weave their way around the main kite when it is raised in the sky at night. This is to ward off any competitor kites that may be around to cut off the main kite that holds the lanterns. These support kites are known as Guard kites.
We did all of this that night and managed to fly 5 lanterns on our main kite before it got cut off by some opponents. Well, let’s just say our guard kites failed on that attempt. But we didn’t lose hope. Another kite was let loose and this time, we managed to get 13 lanterns on that kite – without any damage. We had spent about 2 to 3 hours in this process and finally decided to call it a night. The kite was tied to a railing and left soaring. To our surprise, the kite was still soaring high the next morning when we went upstairs to examine any damage done to that kite.
Uttarayan is an experience one has to have in a lifetime at least once. People come together, merriment is around, food and chatter fills the air, shouts of Kaipoche and other Kite flying terms that only Gujarati kite flyers would know only too well are heard all around. The atmosphere has only good vibes all around and every single person – whether a Gujarati or other is welcomed to partake in.
This one sure gives you tons of memories – enough to last a lifetime or a year if you prefer (to return back to Gujarat again to join in the merriment).
All those planning to visit India, make a plan soon… January is pretty near now.