Basant I

in holydays

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

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