As a true blue Amdavadi myself, I felt it was a disgrace that my daughters, at 7 and 10 had yet not sampled the many joys of Uttarayan or Makar Sakranti (also known as Utraann locally). So this year I made it a point to be in my home town Ahmedabad to celebrate the festival of the Northward movement of the sun; Uttarayan, the great kite flying festival of Gujarat celebrated each year on 14th January. There are so many reasons to be in Apnu (our) Gujarat at this time:
The bright, colourful patang (kites) of varied shapes and sizes start to appear in the markets weeks in advance – in anticipation of the kite flying festival. Luridly bright maanja (kite strings) are prepared – they are often treated with powdered glass to make the string strong and sharp and then wound on to spools called the ‘firki’. This is the scene not just in cities such as Ahmedabad, Vadodra and Surat but in all of Gujarat.
Kids take to walking around with their eyes fixed on the sky, in anticipation of catching a patang (kite set adrift by someone else’s superior kite flying skills or better quality maanja). The idea of the festival is to take advantage of the windy conditions that invariably prevail in the region around this time of the year. People fly their kites from the terrace of their house, and use their skills to try and cut as many kites as possible while trying to save their own kite from the same fate. A tally is kept of how many were cut and how many got cut.
Shops selling kites wear a marvelously festive look and people throng to the shops, cheerfully jostling for space and haggling for the best prices, the sharpest maanja and the best balanced and well made kites. Kite shops stay open practically all night on 13th January, the day before Uttarayan.
The official kite flying festival that is held on the banks of river Sabarmati attracts kite enthusiasts from many different countries. This adds to the festive atmosphere of Uttarayan.
Where there are Gujjus, there will be food! The specialty of Uttarayan is Undhiyu and Jalebi. Undhiyu is a dish made from fresh winter veggies with spices cooked in an upturned pot (undhu maatlu, hence the name undhiyu) and of course jalebi is the sweet swirl that all of India is well acquainted with. And then there is the traditional sweet made from til and gud (sesame seeds and jiggery) – either in chikki or laddoo form. As for other Gujarati farsan and nashta – well there is such a mind boggling variety on offer that we’ll have to leave that one for another post.
The night previous to Uttarayan is spent in preparation – if kites and maanja aren’t not already bought, families and groups will sally forth in quest of the best and technically most perfect kites and string. Gloves will be bought (those kite strings can cut fingers really badly). Gundar patti (sticky paper tape) will be stocked up on (for those irritating little kite tears). Caps, sun-glasses and visors are located and placed along with the kites. There is an atmosphere of joyous anticipation all around; everyone wishes that the winds are adequate the next day.
The day begins with the early birds getting to their terraces at day break. Shouts of ‘Kaipo chhe’ (your kite string is cut) and ‘Lapet’ (wind up your string) rend the air. Loud music accompanies this and the terrace of each house has a party atmosphere.
Thousands of kites are seen in the sky and the entire day is spent on the terrace flying kites. This is usually not enough – so we have the concept of Wasi (stale) Uttarayan– few people go to school or office on 15th January – the festivities continue for yet another day before everyone has had enough.
Traditionally we had the “tukkal” being lit and sent up into the air with a kite as soon as the sun sets on Uttarayan day. These were little paper lanterns with lit candles inside – these were attached to the string of a big kite (dhal) and sent gently up into the sky. It was a measure of the kite flyer’s skill; how many lanterns his or her kite could support. In recent times this has been replaced with Chinese Lanterns – these are much simpler because they don’t need a skilled kite flyer to get them air borne.
These are collapsible paper lanterns with a small fire at the bottom. As the air in the balloon is heated, the lantern starts to rise into the sky. Thousands of such lanterns were seen twinkling in the sky on Uttarayan evening this year in Ahmedabad. It was a beautiful spectacle. (It’s another matter that these same beautiful lamps were responsible for flight delays and not a few fires).
Sadly the kites do cause accidents and birds do get injured – but it remains a fact that the Gujarati festival of Uttarayan is one of the most unique and enjoyable of Indian festivals. It is a terrific reason to visit Gujarat in January!
By – Reena Daruwalla
Images Courtesy – Roshni Kavina