My wife: “We need to have the boys miss a week of school right after winter break.”
Me: “Even after the two week vacation? Why?”
Every January 14, my wife’s former home state of Gujarat, India hosts one of the largest kite festivals in the world. She, her brother, and cousins have fond memories participating while growing up. I had heard bits and pieces about what it was like and had to see for myself. Not to mention it would probably be a blast for our boys as well.
Uttarayan (pronounced “oot-tran” to my untrained ear) is part Thanksgiving, part 4th of July, part board-game night and 100% good old fashioned fun.
There is a lot going on, with festival-specific food and different events but everything culminates on the final day. We were told the day before to make a special shopping trip to outfit ourselves. Main on the list were kites and string.
I grew up flying kites. Some fancy ones with multiple tiers and two-handed navigation that could do loopty-loops in tight spirals. Needless to say I was disappointed to only find what looked like simple, tissue paper versions that could only be flown by a single string.
My wife and mother-in-law loaded up on dozens of these delicate kites and hundreds of meters worth of string spools. “How many people are we outfitting?” I thought to myself.
My first lesson of Uttarayan was merely a morning away before I would understand why these things are so disposable. Or at least certainly not worth sinking a bunch of money into a single kite.
You see, all the neon colored kite string is laced with ground glass powder. Why? Because the festival is one gigantic kite fight! There is such a volume of kites up in the air at once that inevitably strings are going to cross. And it’s better you are prepared to cut your opponents anchor and set their kite “free” than have that happen to you.
The next day we hopped in a rickshaw and made our way to our first location. The roof of a relative’s business right in the heart of downtown Ahmedabad. There we were greeted by our welcoming hosts and escorted to the roof of the building where our boys immediately started assembling their kites.
I just had to stop to take in the scene. Every rooftop was filled with people, young and old. Most were probably family gatherings. The sky was peppered with fleeting, flying, colorful postage stamp-shaped kites. Indian top 40 tunes were blasting out from the terraces in every direction, overlapping in songs and competing to be heard.
From here, it was a lesson on stationary kite flying on a near zero wind day. When I was a kid, you could sometimes manufacture enough wind to get your kite up in the sky by running like a lunatic the length of a football field.
Unfortunately when confined to a roof of a building, you don’t have this luxury so Gujaratis have mastered the repetitive arm motion of elevating a kite from a stand still. It’s truly something to watch. Check the video embedded at the end for a glimpse.
If you have the patience and put in the effort to eventually get your kite above the static air surrounding the high rises, you really have only passed the first test.
As you attempt to keep your kite elevating, you have to be aware of your surroundings and other predators. You see, now you are in an ocean of bounty hunters just looking to claim another victim.
There was a particularly adept group of 20-somethings on the next building over from us with plenty of predators already skyward. They were intimidating, cackling and whooping it up every time they fell another victim. Seriously, check the video to see them in action.
They would hunt unsuspecting 10 year-olds who just spend the last half hour getting their kite airborne. Once they skillfully crossed your path, they were like savvy fisherman rapidly manipulating their kite string to saw, rip, and separate you from your petty investment.
Once it’s too dark to continue with kites, that’s when the pyrotechnics come out. The cackling of the kite assassins is replaced with the whistling of bottle rockets and popping fireworks.
That and the “banned” lanterns that dot the night sky. Ours got stuck on a building’s terrace across the way. Fortunately the owner noticed, raced out of his house and freed the flaming beast prior to doing any damage.
So that was our Uttarayan. It’s really a holiday of gathering, sharing food, and hosting a picnic on the roof. Most people are visiting and enjoying each other’s company. The kids at heart (of all ages) are the ones flying the kites.
It feels like something so organic and on such a grand, unorganized scale can only be pulled off in a place like India.
Here is one of my better visual documentaries of our day among the kites. You can see both my sons’ strings get cut and the hundreds, maybe thousands of lanterns floating and lighting up the night sky like something out of a Disney movie.