Basant I

This week Lahore celebrates Jashan-e Baharan – Spring Celebration – or more popularly known as Basant – the Kite festival. Now “kites” may bring to your mind grassy hills, warm breezes, little children running with plastic strings and boxed contraptions in the sky. Or it may bring to your mind fantastically shaped dragons and demon heads. Or maybe Ole’ Franklin’s cheap attempt for adrenalin. What should come to your mind upon hearing the word Basant is a wildly colorful festival that covers the skies of Lahore with swooping triangles and the streets of Lahore with gangs of bow-kata kids. On the family side, it is a great weekend when everyone dresses in mustard-hued fineries, climbs to the highest reachable point of their residences, puts on music and flies kites non-stop for 48 hours. On the professional circuit, it is a hard-core battle of skills and wits with fingers cut through to the bones and eyes squinted shut through years of kiting. On the dangerous side, it is a cut-throat (ok, literally) world where children and adults engage in top-gun-style dog-fighting in the air with strings coated with glass [or plain metal] and chase the “defeated” kites through roads and alleys heeding no man or machine.

So, this week is Basant Week here at CM. A bit of history today. String preparation and type of kites tomorrow. Next, rules of engagement. And HOPEFULLY, some of my readers in Lahore and Karachi will take some pics and we can have those contributions as well. Yes, that is a mission, should you chose to accept it.

Han Hsin, a Chinese General, supposedly used a kite to find enemies in 200 BC. Sounds dubious but I hereby request Jonathan Dresner’s help. In any case, kite flying came out of China into India, Central Asia (and Europe). In India, we have references to kites in the fourth century Panchatantra tales, translated into the Arabic in Kalila wa Dimna. Kites found a sacred and recreational space in the Malay, Pacific Islands, Japan etc. The Turkic and Mongolian influx into the Islamic world made kite-flying into a leisure activity from Cairo to Delhi by the 13th century. However, kite-flying was never a sport for the masses; it was for the indulgence of princes in their marble terraces [just like pigeons but I digress].

Basant itself is a north-Indian celebration of Spring. The Basant Pancami festival was the a five day festival during the Magh month [Jan-Feb] when the fields are awash in mustard-seed flowers. and consisted of people dressing in mustard-color clothes and having a good time. This festival can be traced at least since the mid thirteenth century and here is a late, yet prototypical account, from the early 19th century by Mrs. Meer Hassan Ali [an Englishwoman married to an Indian noble]:

There is a festival observed at Lucknow called Bussund (spring-colour). I should remark here, that almost all the trees of India have perpetual foliage; as the season approaches for the new leaves to sprout, the young buds force off the old leaves; and when the trees are thus clothed in their first delicate foliage, there is a yellow tinge in the colour which is denominated Bussund (Spring). A day is appointed to be kept under this title, and then every one wears the Bussund colour; no one would be admitted at Court without this badge of the day. The elephants, horses and camels of the King, or of his nobles, are all ornamented with the same colour on their trappings.
The King holds a Court, gives a public breakfast, and exhibits sports with ferocious animals. The amusements of this day are chiefly confined to the Court: I have not observed much notice taken of it in private life.

As usual, we can blame the Sufis for bringing the festival into the Muslim pantheon. By the Mughal period, Basant was a popular festival at the major Sufi shrines. We have, for example, mentions of Nizam Auliya ki Basant, Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki ki Basant, Khusrau ki Basant; festivals arranged around the shrines of these various sufi saints. Khusrau, the famous sufi-poet of the thirteenth century, even composed verses on Basant:

Aaj basant mana lay suhagan, aaj basant mana lay/
Anjan manjan kar piya mori, lambay neher laga lay/
Tu kya sovay neend ki maasi,

so jaagay teray bhaag, suhaagun, Aaj basant mana layÖ..;/
Oonchi naar kay oonchay chitvan,

ayso diyo hai banaaye/
Shah Amir tuhay dekhan ko, nainon say naina milaaye, /
Suhaagun, aaj basant manaalay.

Celebrate basant today, O bride, Celebrate basant today/
Bring out your lotions,and decorate your long hair/
Oh why are you the servant of sleep? Even your fate is wide awake, Celebrate basant today/
O high lady with high looks, […], when the king looks at you, you meet his eyes,/
O Bride, Celebrate basant today [bad translation]

A typical celebration during the Mughal period would entail the devotees of the Sufi traveling to the shrine on Basant clad in yellow to offer garlands of yellow flowers and sing qawwalis all night long. Now THAT’s a good time!

I mention the involvement of the Sufis in Basant history because the popular trope of religious leaders in modern Pakistan has been to denounce Basant as a Hindu celebration that needs to be stopped. You often read/hear nonsense such as this. Bah Humbug.

Lahore was an early and central city in the emergence of competitive kite-flying. I don’t exactly know how or why kite-flying left the nobility and became a competitive sport for the masses in South Asia and neither do I know when it merged with the Basant festival [ok, i can find out but please]. Some conjecture is that it happened in late 18th to early 19th c period when Basant and the Mughal king’s birthday landed on the same day. Regardless, it became widely observed festival among Hindus and Muslims of North India and though the “spring” angle has dwindled in Pakistan, the “kite” aspect is more vigorous than ever. Actually, come to think of it, the “spring” angle is the “official” angle. Ha.

Also see India’s Basant.

Related: Basant II, Basant III

Published by

sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

16 thoughts on “Basant I”

  1. According to Robert Temple, The Genius of China, p 173, references to kites in China go back to the 4th and 5th centuries bce, including intense interest by the founder of the Mohist movement, Mo Ti (aka Mo-tsu or Mozi). Mo Ti was an interesting fellow, a sort of pacifist in that he vehemently opposed the use of force in politics, and a sort of militarist in that he and his followers frequently came to the aid of beseiged cities and struggling states. Mo’s movement has left us some of the best descriptions of military tactics and weapons, all in the name of eliminating war. The legend cited in the link above appears apochryphal (though you could in fact make that calculation with the proper application of trigonometry, which doesn’t seem to appear in any form until the 3c ce) based on my source, but the use of kites as a means of signaling and, later, for delivering messages over medium distances (by cutting the string and letting it fall), do appear in that earliest era.

    There are also references to “man-carrying kites” as early as the 4c ce, though my source I think overinterprets a reference “returning blades” to helicopter-like mechanics instead of a flapping motion which seems more likely.

  2. jonathan: many thanks for that. there is a mention of man-carrying kite in kalila wa dimna as well – for whatever it means.

  3. If I end up in Lahore for Basant, I’ll take many pictures for you. Did you hear, btw, that last year, 20 million rupees’ worth of alcohol was confiscated? I can’t quite remember if it was pre- or post-Basant, but I’m fairly sure it was for Lahore alone.

  4. Basant is a festival that has no relation with Islamic mode of life. It is purely an Indian custom costing this poor Muslim country(Pakistan) heavily. Besides kite flying special arrangements are made to celebrate it. Rooftops are selected for this purpose on individual basis. People from far off assemble at specific places and dance to the beat of drum and sing songs like Chano ki aankh main kesa nasha hay and Patang baz sujna, raising various slogans. Special programmes are organized on conspicuous places in different cities on national level in which school boys and girls specially participate enthusiastically. No doubt, these places invite the divine wrath. Where modesty is wounded. On one side Kashmiri, Iraqi, Afghani Muslims women; sisters, daughters are lamenting on their lost modesty and on the other these girls who are passing their lives in liberal circumstances, throw away their veil, uncovering their heads and bod! ies. It is amazing that the Cold Nuclear Bomb of Sonia Gandhi is functioning so rashly that in festivals like Basant, yellow wrappers and sexy songs, and the entertainment of kites √± all symbols of Hindu culture — are seen all over the country. The Muslims should abdicate Indian culture. They should put their efforts in the establishment of a society which is based on sound footing of unity and faith to promote the Islamic culture.

    Raana Khan

    Chicago

  5. a long comment, an excerpt from an abandoned novel, about basant in delhi…

    Chhap tilak sab chhinni re mose naina mila ke . . .

    The words soaring upwards carried us into the sky. A brief visit to the windswept blue, circling with the buzzards, beyond the shallow domes rising over the huge bulk of the Jama’at Khana. A brief visit before we were brought back by the jostling of the crowd to the marble filigree screen she was tightly clutching with one hand. The screen around the mazaar of Hazrat Amir Khusrau Dehalvi; courtier to seven sultans, revered sufi and companion of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, foremost poet and virtual inventor of Hindavi ; dead for nearly seven hundred years. A screen beyond which women were not permitted.

    Not surprising, considering the song was all about, in rather erotic metaphors, Khusrau’s love for his guru Nizamuddin Auliya. If Khusrau forgot himself and found himself nearly drowned in a dyer’s vat on looking into the eyes of Nizamuddin, he really didn’t need, or want, women around.

    Bal bal jaaon main tohre rangrejuaÖ

    All around us, the dyerís vat was much in evidence. Turbans, kerchiefs, dupattas in the hundreds freshly dyed in spring yellow, the colour of sarson fields stretching to the horizon when seen from a swiftly passing car on an open highway. Weíd forgotten that it was Basant Panchami, and had never known that it was celebrated at Nizamuddin, so were in a beatific daze.

    One of the tall hatted, ledger bearing sajjadanashin, who can zero in on a bewildered expression (and relatively prosperous clothing) faster than a hovering chil spots playground lunchbox contents, swooped down upon us with the story.

    Nizamuddin was once so grieved because of the passing away of his young nephew, that he withdrew himself completely from the world for a couple of months. Either he would lock himself inside a room, or when no one else was around to disturb his sorrow, he would sit by his nephewís grave. Khusrau, who could not bear with his absence any longer, started thinking of ways to brighten him up.

    One day Khusrau met a few women on the road who were dressed up beautifully, singing and carrying colourful flowers. He asked them what they were up to. The women told him it was Basant Panchami, and they were taking the offering of Basant to their god. And of course, on Basant Panchami, the offerings are/were made to Kama, the god of love. Khusrau found this very fascinating, and smiling he said, “Well, my god needs an offering of Basant too.√Æ

    Immediately, he dressed himself up like those women, took some mustard flowers and singing the same songs, started walking towards the graveyard where his pir would be sitting alone. Nizamuddin Aulia noticed some women coming towards him Рhe could not recognize Khusrau. And then, presumably as Nizamuddin was about to bawl them out for disturbing his reverie, he recognised Amir Khusrau, courtier to Sultans and his greatest fan, dressed in ghagra choli and carrying a basket of bright yellow mustard, he cracked upÖ

    Main to piya se naina lada aayi reÖ

    – Yaar, said Angel with a tone of total awe, as tallhat went over to more amenable prey since Angel and I both pleaded broke-ness, Cross-dressing also? Khusrau to saccha lover tha! You should learn something from him!
    We walked towards the mazaar of Nizamuddin Auliya where the qawwals were singing, and I had to keep brushing away the ittar waalas from my ears, behind which they insisted on sticking cotton swabs soaked in cheap reeking chemical ittar…

  6. what should be stopped basant or people spending huge amount on smoking , cinema etc.the festival of basant is from no means waste of money this helps in bringing the money in circulation. the money comes out from the hands of rich people and this money is earned by poor people. as far as the comments about basant from our religious leaders so call mullahs say it is a hindu festival and it should not be celebrated but i want to say that many things in our country which should be actullay criticized by mullahas such as cable, films industry etc.and i was disappointed to see in a news paper some lawyer filed a suit against basant these selfish person gust want to be famous they want to show people that they are some thing

  7. many Pakistanis and often many North Indians assume that cultural norms of Punjabis (and for North Indians aka Punjabis, Haryanvis, UP ites and himachal pardeshis) apply for rest of India.

    Well the news is they dont. Not only that many Pakistanis often hold out on the quaint memories(probably transferred by those of the elder generation) that Indian culture or even Indian Punjabi (or the Delhi and surrounding areas)is the same as in the 1940ties. Not only is culture dynamic but also with the formation of different states different states have taken slightly different paths. While it is true that Basant as described in this is a important part of Punjabi culture and to some extent in UP elsewhere it is a different story.

    Also not the link given for Indian Celebrations of Basant. If Sahiytya Academy is involved in anything you can be rest assured that it is a dying if not an already dead tradition.

  8. Dea Raana Khan
    Pardon me …it costs us poor people ? FYI , kites and kite reels etc are made by the underprivileged in pakistan and hence it is good.Additionally,the amicable atmosphere of this festival, like basant, is so relaxing to the soul.
    I hope i did not displease you.
    Sajid ..Sugar Land

  9. sorry to read comments such as by raana khan; i am still hopeful that he is a diminishing minority in this world. it is sad to see people blinded by bigotry of all kinds including religion. so what if basant has a hindu origin? practically all south asians have a hindu origin. we should be proud of who we are and where we came from, because that is the reality. we are brothers and sisters and basant, basakhi etc festivals help foster a spirit of friendship, not to mention the economic benefits it also brings. come lets open our hearts and minds!

  10. Basant is a festival to welcome the new year. During Basant days, the clear blue skies of Punjab are filled with the breath-taking color of the kites! From mid-January to mid march the clear blue skies of Pakistan, come alive with the cheerfulness and color of kites- which are in all shapes, sizes and colors. Kite flying is related with Vasant Panchami. It is also commonly known as Basant. Traditionally, on Basant children and women wear yellow. Basant signs the new beginning and the colorful kites in the sky are a statement of this joyous awakening. Thats a short and good description for Basant! Its better than raana khan’s.

  11. i was amazed when i typed basant history in google and i found out every one trying to portray it as a religio-social festival. a book named punjab under later mughals had described basant as an activity of hindus when one of the hindu blasphamed hazrat fatima r.a. and was sentenced to death by the then governer. the hindus then celeberated the audacity and courage of that man by flying kites and all. i dont know why are we muslims celeberate it? millions of rupees are spent on this so called spring occasion. to copy other nations is prohibited in islam as well as its a sign of weakness. in madina Prophet Mohammed pbuh was once reported of people celebrating a festival, so he strongly said that Allah S.W.T. has given us two festivals to enjoy; the eid ul fitr and eid ul adha. so when we have these two festivities why go for others?
    specially when the daughter of our nation dr. afia is imprisoned far away, when we have kashmir all in blood, with people dying in palestine, iraq, afghanistan? why go too far? we have our country under drone attacks and we still celeberate basant with a huge money wasted? it appears that we are dead, we have our feelings finished, thats why we cannot hear the cries of dr. afia, we cannot see kashmir and palestine burning.

  12. Razarumi than for sharing this beautiful links.
    Basant is a centuries old cultural tradition of Punjab. Over the years, it gained an element of controversy as the fundamentalism wiped the norms of tolerance and co-existence in our society. Disregard of law and for the lives of fellow citizens turned it into a bloody sport.

Leave a Reply