Viva Basant!

February 18, 2024

Dr Ajaz Anwar reminisces about the good old Basant days

— Image: Supplied
— Image: Supplied


ooftop activities like flying kites and pigeons are particularly suited to the climate of Lahore. Basant is a seasonal festival that marks the end of winters and ushers in spring. Hence, it is greeted as “Basant, pala urant. It was never a part of any religion.

When an exhibition of my paintings, depicting Old Lahore, was held at India International Centre, New Delhi, in the year 1997, I thought it appropriate to display kites that we had carried with us from Lahore, because kites are a part of Lahore’s skies; and hence my favourite subject matter. The visitors, especially the octogenarians and nonagenarians who had migrated from Lahore, were thrilled to see so many (fauve) colourful paper kites that we suspended from the high ceilings of the gallery. “Woh din jab yaad aatay hain toh kaleja munh ko aata hai, remarked a visitor.

Kite-flying is a hobby/ sport that is thousands of years old. It seems to have originated in ancient China where paper was invented (the Egyptians too had developed it out of papyrus reeds; hence, the word “paper”). Paper kites flown with thin cotton threads or twine evolved into very sophisticated aero-foil shapes to counter the behaviour of the winds. Thin bamboo sticks reinforced with thread holding the shape of a kite over which paper pieces in various colours were pasted, was a trend in this part of South Asia. Old miniature paintings from Pahari school depict ladies enjoying the sport. These kites were given various names depending upon the shapes — patang, guddi, kup, machhar, Lucknow kaat, pari, silai marka, dabbidar and pappardan (a very big kite). Some also had round ‘eyes’ in complimentary or contrasting colours.

The combinations of colour schemes were due to the limitations of sizes of available thin papers, Amjad Parvez once told me. There were many renowned kite makers and twine makers in the city.

The makers of kites had teams with different skills. They would prepare kites the year round. The kite-flying season lasted only a few weeks, though. Basant was the only day fixed for the activity. It was always Basant day, not night. The latter trend evolved much later.

On a typical Basant day, the bluish grey sky was dotted with colourful kites in all shades of VIBGYOR. The daybreak was announced with loud proclamations of “bo kata,” accompanied by beating of dhol and bugles. Children, too, would skip school that day. The day used to be one of celebration and feasting. Everyone would be on the rooftop.

There used to be kite-flying contests in Minto Park, which was later renamed Iqbal Park. Minar-i-Pakistan was built here by Mian Abdul Khaliq. It was designed by Murat Han.

The peaceful festival of Basant often had some tragic instances of people, mostly young, falling from the high roofs inside the Walled City. Grounds level is not favourable for this sport as high roofs offer unobstructed winds with greater velocity. My own brother broke a leg while chasing a stray kite.

Kites in the air were meant to be a fierce contest. It would get fiercer as the kite got entangled, resulting in a cord being cut off. As a result, the kite would drift away, attracting children in the streets to run after it, often armed with rods fitted with thorny bushes.

The string used for flying a kites is a special one — it’s thin but strong. It used to be cotton, coated with a starch paste that contained finely ground glass that helped in cutting the combatant’s string. We used to test its strength by breaking it with a hand. The string was rolled into a big ball which was handled by an expert assistant. This allowed the string to be released unhindered during the match, or paich. These strings, called dor in vernacular, also came in different colours, including black which is visible to the onlookers and to the ones chasing the kite.

Later, strings were made with plastic thread and chemically coated (which was against the norm and endangered lives). The use of metal strings, or cords, caused serious accidents and sometimes short-circuited high-voltage wires that fell in the way.

Whenever someone lost a contest, they would timidly pull back the twine. The drifting kite’s string would get entangled in trees or wires around the place. Sadly, we have felled many trees without planting any replacements.

The day festival was spectacular, with some folks wearing yellow clothes — basanti rang — against the clear blue skies in the unpolluted atmosphere. On the rooftops, some khilaris would frequent only seasonally. These experts would fly patang, teera and kup which demanded great skill, as these needed to be handled like powerful sails. The twine was, thus, carefully released in measured steps or the hand of the flier could get cut.

As the festival became more popular, many corporate sponsors started booking rooftops of hotels or havelis in the old city for the night. Professional kite fliers were hired and searchlights focused on the white kites. In some cases, even firing squads were engaged.

The spectacle of thousands of kites flying or drifting in the endless space of the skies is no more. Instead of regulating it through local communities, it was banned outright. Thousands of families whose livelihood depended on making the twine and shaping the bamboo sticks and preparing the kites had to look for other ways for sustenance.

So strict is vigilance for any kite fliers in the city nowadays that people are actually scared of even keeping kites as souvenirs.

Kite flying depends on fair weather; rain and strong winds, particularly dust storms are dreaded.

The day after Basant was often calm. Only those who had gathered (or caught) some kites indulged for a few more days. Traditionally, these were called looters’ days.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof Amjad Parvez, a kite-flying enthusiast)

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at

Viva Basant!