Lahore’s culture of kite
People have flown kites for millennia – for relaxation, as recreation, as an ancient tool for military signalling and as a modern signifier of an ephemeral harmony. The practice originated in China around 3000 years ago, from where it eventually trickled into South and Southeast Asia. In Pakistan, kite flying has long brought the followers of various religions together annually, to join hands – and cross strings – in heralding the arrival of spring.
In the Subcontinent, legend tells of the 12th-century saint Nizamuddin Aulia, of Delhi, and his grief at the death of his nephew, Taquiddin Nooh. As he was wondering what he could do to cheer him up, Nizamuddin’s close friend and disciple, Amir Khusro, came upon a group of village women dressed in bright yellow, the colour of mustard in bloom. The women told Khusro that they were celebrating spring, and offering flowers to their gods. The sight of the gaily-dressed women did indeed brighten Nizamuddin’s spirits, and to this day, the Basant, or spring, festival is commemorated with a profusion of mustard flowers at several Nizamuddin shrines. While they are celebrated throughout Southasia by communities of all religious backgrounds, the festivities have long had a particular connection with Lahore. And the old, walled city is especially famed for its enthusiasm for Basant patang baazi, or kite flying.
Lahore, once renowned for its fashion and style, has in recent years been working to recover the glory that it had as the cultural capital of Punjab. The effort began around 1990, when the World Bank funded a massive renovation of the old city. During this push, civic leaders latched on to the popularity of the Basant festival; and over the past decade and a half, Basant has become an event surrounded by so much hype in Lahore that many people have dramatically reworked their havelis (mansions) in the city, decorating rooftops and expanding lawns so as to be able to accommodate the festival-goers. Multinational companies have also cashed in on the public mood, and the festival has become increasingly commercialised.
Amidst this rising popularity, however, there is also rising angst. In recent years there has been growing public disgruntlement with the kite flying at the festival, due both to safety concerns and rising pressure from fundamentalist groups. A nearly year-round ban on flying kites throughout Pakistan, with a two-day exception for Basant, has now led to uncertainty with regards to the future of the festival. Indeed, the substitution in the public rhetoric of the Basant celebrations in general for kite flying in particular goes to show just how characteristic kites are of the Lahore festivities.
Basant begins each year around mid-February. The festivities start in the evening, when people begin to fly their kites from illuminated rooftops. This distinctively Lahori practice of night-time kite flying, coupled with music, dancing and feasting, carries on throughout the night, ending eventually at the end of the third day. The kites flown in Lahore during Basant are of the manoeuvrable, square construction, with a triangular tail and five bamboo struts – the same basic design found in the other cities of Southasia. As elsewhere, the Lahore kites are tethered by cotton strings coated with powdered glass. With multiple kite-fliers in a particular area, the goal is to get into a paicha, wherein the strings of two or more kites cross. Then, using a special flying technique, each kite-fighter attempts to cut the strings of the other kites, success in which results in shrieks of “Boo kata!” The vast majority of those who fly during Basant are kite-fighters – perhaps because they have little choice in the matter, since kite fighting is probably as old as kite flying itself.
To prepare for launching, a kite is punctured with a matchstick on each side of its central strut, at two places above and two below the point at which the cross-struts meet. This provides for a triangle of string, making the kite more aerodynamic. The puncturing process is called taran, and how well it is done defines how responsive the kite is to its master during flight, particularly important in kite fighting. The string used for fighting also has to be readied with great care. The string’s strength is tested by crossing it over a master string, and two people saw the strings back and forth until one is cut. Once its strength has been discerned, the string, or dor, is wound into a ball called a pinna or gola. The string is sharp and abrasive, having been coated with finely ground glass, and young children have grown up being taught the special ways to deal with dor. Some dor sold on the market, however, is extremely sharp and sometimes even reinforced with metal, posing a frightening public safety hazard.
There are certain ethics involved in the paicha. For instance, a kite may not be attacked until it is completely up in the air, and in the control of the flier. Nonetheless, competitions surrounding kite fighting can often descend to ground level, with fliers resorting to fisticuffs once their kites are defeated in the air. In recent years, a number of deaths in Pakistan have been attributed to kite-fighting frustration.
Dangerous, but un-Islamic?
If razor-stringed aerial dogfights sound like they could be dangerous, they are. This year, at least 11 people died and more than 100 people were injured during the two days of legal kite flying. These deaths and injuries were due to lacerations, electrocutions, people falling off rooftops and getting hit by stray celebratory bullets. During the previous five years, official records show that 861 people died and over 2000 were injured in kite-related accidents.
The physical toll may be considered part of the game by many, but the game itself is now under attack. Over the years, there have been several petitions against the festival placed before Pakistani courts. In 2004, the Lahore High Court heard a new complaint by a Lahore-based lawyer, alleging that the Basant kite flying was un-Islamic. The court rejected the claim, but the government nonetheless decided to pass a countrywide ban on kite flying in 2005 on grounds of safety concerns, with a few days’ allowance for Basant.
To this day, however, Islamabad officials are at pains to emphasise that the government’s actions were not religiously motivated. “The fact is that Basant has nothing to do with any religion,” says Minister for Culture G G Jamal. “There has been a problem with some people who use razor-edged strings. This has caused some accidents, and the government had to ban kite-flying just for this.” Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, Pakistan’s Railway Minister, who himself flies kites during Basant, notes: “Some religious fanatics want to tie everything with Islam. They forget that culture and religion are different things. I think the kite-fliers should be allowed to enjoy, but with some restrictions.”
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Makhdoom Amin Fahim says that kite flying is an integral part of Pakistan’s culture and tradition. “We have been living in this region for centuries, and our forefathers and their forefathers have been flying kites,” he says. “Where does Islam stop us from flying kites?”
Despite the assumption that the majority of Pakistanis tend to agree with Fahim, religious groups continue to press for doing away with the Basant festival. The head of the rightwing Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Qazi Hussain Ahmed, goes so far as to say that Basant is a Hindu festival. “It is un-Islamic, and the government must ban it,” he says. “To add to this, hundreds of people lose their lives in this ‘killing festivity’. Whenever we come to power, we will not allow this Hindu festival to be celebrated at the cost of so many lives.”
The MMA is in the opposition in Islamabad, but governs in NWFP, where the provincial government in 2006 passed its own law outlawing the practice, over and above the Supreme Court’s ban. Transgressors are now threatened with fines of PKR 40,000 or three months in prison. A religious leader at the Jamia Hafsa seminary, Ghazi Abdul Rashid, explains religious concerns this way: “Anything that wastes money or resources is not acceptable in Islam.”
Such fire-and-brimstone aside, fundamentalists are certainly not the only voices calling for restrictions to be placed on kite flying. Liaqat Ali’s daughter was killed last year during the Basant; she was a bystander, simply watching the festivities, when some wayward string acted as a razor. “What’s good in flying kites?” Liaqat demands. “My daughter’s throat was slit, and I can’t forget it. I think they should ban Basant.”
Flying versus fighting
Despite objections by the cultural fundamentalists and victims of kite flying, tens of thousands of people gathered in Lahore this year on 24-25 February, the window set aside for legal kite flying. As fliers sent their kites up by the thousands, the floodlit skies of Lahore were once again a kaleidoscope of whistling, swooping paper diamonds, and the air filled with enthusiastic shouts and cheering from the rooftops. Special kite-flying functions were arranged at more than 1100 sites around the city, led in places by some of Lahore’s most prominent personalities. In keeping with tradition, many kite fliers wore yellow ribbons, scarves and even full yellow dresses. Again, there were accidents.
For his part, General Pervez Musharraf, a longtime Basant supporter, said that the ban on flying kites could be lifted in the future only if the hysteria surrounding kite-fighting was defused, and the practice could be looked at as a simple game. “We are not against the festival, but rather against those people who are manufacturing such threads that slit throats,” the general said in Lahore. “We should not look at it as Islamic or un-Islamic. … Play the game as a game, so that we can continue to enjoy it, so that our next generations can enjoy it.”
In the final analysis, flying kites is a significantly different sport than fighting with kites. Many feel that putting restrictions only on the latter would be a relatively balanced solution. “I don’t want to lose this festival,” said Fareeha Pervez, a renowned singer, during the most recent Basant. “Action should be taken against those who bring a bad name to Basant by manufacturing those dangerous strings that cause accidents.” Marina Akhtar, a college student, agreed: “We should enjoy kite flying as a game, but there should be checks on those who shoot into the air [in celebration], and those who manufacture metal strings that cut people.”
This would appear to be the way that the government is leaning as well. During the two days that it allowed kite flying this year, the Punjab court laid down several conditions. In addition to stipulating the size of the strings and kites that could be used, it banned the use of some of the more flagrantly dangerous kite-fighting strings, including metal-reinforced ones. Instead, strings could only be covered with wheat-flour glue and finely ground glass to provide the cutting edge. The government has also started regulating the industry, issuing licenses to compliant string manufacturers. Even such precautions were evidently deemed as insufficient, however, as Lahore officials also took it upon themselves to urge bicyclists to attach safety antennas to their cycles, to guard against dangerous strings that may descend from above. The hope Lahoris harbour is that, with the dangers posed by kite flying tackled, the sport will be allowed to herald spring in their city, unencumbered by the fundamentalist urge to ban anything that is celebratory and enjoyable.~ Shafqat Ali is a journalist based in Islamabad.