I cannot advocate the continuation of a festival that results in so many deaths.
I have vivid memories of Basant. Everyone would be caught up in the spirit and festivities of the season. Maybe it’s because all one really needed to celebrate was a long string and a kite. And if you still couldn’t afford that, you could snatch one that’s drifting awayin the sky.
But alas, the festival which once attracted tourists from far and wide to Lahore is now a thing of the past.
Anger at the government’s ban
The Punjab government’s decision to ban Basant sparked a hot debate on Twitter. Pro-Basant activists believe the onus is on the government to provide security for citizens and that the ban deprives citizens of cultural recreation. One tweet blamed the ghost of the Zia regime that for the death of the only true festival of the soil.
I wish some of these people had witnessed the scenes in the emergency room of a government hospital in Lahore on the last Basant day to understand the real reasons for this festival’s demise. I cannot advocate the continuation of this festival.
1. Deadly wires
There is a cry for banning string that has been coated with glass or is made of wire as this results in hundreds of deaths each season, but this has failed.
In Lahore, where the crime rate is on the rise, it’s unreasonable to pin our hopes on the incompetent police. It is unlikely that they will put in the effort required to stop the illegal manufacturing and sales of metal string.
2. Falling to their death
The fishnets and metallic wires are not the only problem. During the festival, people are up on their rooftops flying kites but there are thousands of houses in Lahore that do not have guard railings to prevent people from falling. I can sympathise with a child who sees the sky littered with kites, and wants to fly his with all the obstacles in the way; maneuvering it to avoid electricity wires and trees, taping and re-taping the kite constantly as it rips after every failed attempt. The temptation to secretly climb the roof is far too great. That is why hundreds of children and adults fall off rooftops every Basant. Many die, many break limbs while others are left paralysed. What can the government do to fix this problem?
3. Basant is fun for the rich
People riding bicycles and motorcycles are inconvenienced on Basant, as they are not allowed to drive their vehicles. It’s an unfair law that applies only to people belonging to a low socio-economic class. It’s like saying,
“If you don’t own a car, too bad – you can’t go out.”
4. Aerial firing
Another problem is of people accidentally getting shot. I can recall stories of people firing into the sky and the bullets eventually piercing right through an innocent bystander’s skull.
We really have no one to blame except for ourselves for this ban. It is the collective failure of the entire city to crack down on the Basant grinches and force authorities to take action against them. Perhaps it’s a fitting punishment for losing the real essence of a festival that once used to bring people together in celebration.
There are three fundamental facts about Basant that cannot and should never be denied.
One, Basant is a festival that is neither religious, nor national, and is not associated with any one religion or country. Two, Basant is a festival that can be celebrated safely without any injuries and casualties, with proper governance and oversight. Three, Basant can only be celebrated properly in the city of Lahore.
Sultan Ul Mashaikh, Mehboob-e-Ilahi, Hazrat Shaikh Khawaja Syed Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325), one of the greatest Sufi saints of the Chishti silsila (Sufi order) in South Asia, did not have any children of his own, and considered his sister’s son, Khawaja Taqiuddin Nooh, to be his own. His young nephew was the focus of all of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s paternal feelings. While in his early teens, the young boy succumbed to an unknown illness, leaving Hazrat Nizamuddin profoundly sad and in deep depression. The Sufi saint withdrew himself from all affairs of life, stopped meeting his disciples, and started spending all his time alone either at the grave of his nephew, or in his Chilla Sharif (meditation quarters). Hazrat Nizamuddin’s followers were deeply troubled by their teacher’s state; they tried hard to bring him out of the state of utter gloom but were unsuccessful. His principal and highly favored disciple, Hazrat Amir Khusro, tried to cheer him up through humor, reason, diversion and pleading, but did not succeed.
One day, Amir Khusro saw a group of young ladies dressed in yellow saris and ghaagra cholis (blouse and long skirt), carrying garlands of gainda phool (marigold), singing songs while playing the dhol (drums), walking on a road by Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Chilla Sharif. He was intrigued and asked the ladies where they were headed. They replied that, after a period of fasting, they had dressed up for their deity and were heading to the temple to sing, dance and offer garlands in order to make their deity happy. The idea appealed to Amir Khusro who decided to do the same to make his own master happy. He dressed up as a woman in a yellow ghaagra choli, covered his head with a yellow and white striped chunni (large scarf), and headed to the Chilla Sharif along with hundreds of other disciples and devotees, who played dhols, danced and sang a poem Amir Khusro composed for the occasion.
Aaj Basant manaa le suhaagan
Aaj Basant manaa le
Anjan manjan kar piya moray
Lambay nehar lagaae
Tu kya sovay neend ki maaree
So jaagay teray bhaag suhaagan
NainoN se nainaaN milaae suhaagan
Aaj Basant manaa le
Hazrat Nizamuddin watched the song and dance without emotion but started smiling when Amir Khusro removed his chunni at the end of the revelry to reveal his identity. The saint came out of his depression and the annual celebration of the basant festival, with the song, dance, dress and other rituals practiced on that day, was established as a festival in Delhi. The word basant means the spring season and had, heretofore, been used to describe festivals celebrating the arrival of spring. The festival that was started by Amir Khusro was a celebration of reward and happiness after a period of sorrow and sacrifice. No other significance was attached to Basant.
Miniature painting depicting basant
This notion quickly gained favor with the religious clerics and armchair historians in Pakistan
There are a few, mostly weak and historically suspect accounts that portray the festival, incorrectly, as a Hindu celebration that is against Islam. Indeed a very large number of essays, newspaper articles and books have been written propagating the patently false belief, declaring the celebration of Basant an act of blasphemy and equating it with kufr (apostasy).
The story of Haqiqat Rai Baghmal Puri, often told, both in India and in Pakistan, in the context of basant, has long been used to perpetuate hateful myths related to the festival. The truth is rather simple and unremarkable. Haqiqat Rai was the only son of a Khatri (a mostly Hindu and Sikh caste) in Sialkot, Punjab, in the first half of the eighteenth century. One day, a few of his schoolmates made fun of his religion and the young man retorted by making disrespectful statements about the daughter Fatimah of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The young man was tried in the court of the local qazi (Muslim judge) who decided that, while it was alright to make fun of Hinduism, a response to the provocation constituted blasphemy. The boy was sentenced to death and the sentence was carried out, incidentally, on the day of the Basant festival in Lahore. A tomb was built in memory of the Hindu boy and people, mostly Hindu and Sikh, started gathering at the place each year to commemorate his death. It was not for about another hundred and fifty years that a connection was proposed between Basant and the annual commemoration of Haqiqat Rai’s death. At the start of the twentieth century, three Bengali writers, in their flawed and mutually contradictory accounts, put forward the thesis that the Basant festival celebrated the sacrifice of Haqiqat Rai, who chose to die instead of converting to Islam, when given the choice. The works did not mention the fact that the festival had, in fact, been celebrated for more than hundred years before Haqiqat Rai, and numerous references to the effect existed in history, poetry, literature and paintings. The celebration of Basant in Lahore predated the birth of the Hindu boy by a few centuries. The fact that he was beheaded on the day of the festival did not forge a link between his fate and the festival. In 2004, Pakistani newspaper Nawa e Waqt proposed the theory that Basant was in fact a celebration of blasphemy committed by Haqiqat Rai. This notion quickly gained favor with the religious clerics and armchair historians in Pakistan. A slew of more than a dozen books were published between 2004 and 2010 condemning Basant as a festival celebrating insults against the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his family. None of the books mentioned the Sufi origins of the decidedly secular festival.
Basant at Night
Lahore is home to more than one hundred and fifty thousand kite-makers who have no skills other than kite-making
Another equally flawed thesis associates Basant with Sikhs. The theory was started after the publication of the travel memoirs of Charles von Hügel, Kaschmir und das Reich der Siek (Kashmir and the Realm of the Sikh). The Austrian noble and explorer had traveled to the Indian subcontinent in the period between 1831 and 1836, and met, among many others, the Sikh ruler of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In his memoirs, he describes the celebration of Basant in Lahore during the reign of the Maharaja, in great and elaborate detail. His writings were used as the basis to designate Basant as a festival of the Sikhs.
One reason for associating Basant with Hinduism is the confusion caused by the similarly named Vasant Panchami festival. The former is a secular festival that celebrates the tradition started by Amir Khusro whereas the other is a Hindu and Sikh religious festival associated primarily with the worship of the goddess Saraswati and occasionally with the Hindu god, Kamadev, his wife Rati and his friend Vasant. The two festivals, both celebrated at the onset of spring, albeit with similar names, are distinct and not related to each other.
Basant is, sometimes, confused with Jashn E Baharan, another secular festival that celebrates the arrival of spring and predates Basant by about two hundred years. The two festivals have Sufi origins but both have largely different rites and rituals. They are celebrated simultaneously but are not related to each other.
Anti Basant Banners
The issue of public safety during the celebration of Basant has been discussed in Pakistan extensively during the last twenty years. The festival which had been celebrated safely for seven centuries in Lahore, and more than eight centuries elsewhere, became dangerous all of a sudden towards the end of the twentieth century. Local governments spoke about the perils of the celebration at all occasions, and in multiple forums, associating death, disease and injury, and nothing else, with the festival. Other crimes did not seem to merit the kind of exaggerated attention given to Basant. This issue, along with the equally vacuous argument of Basant being an anti-Islam, Hindu-Sikh festival, has been used by the government of Pakistan to ban the festival in Lahore. The festival has not been celebrated in the city for a decade now.
The issues and concerns raised by the police and local government seem to be reasonable and unmanageable. In reality, they are anything but.
Certain vendors prepare dangerously sharp twine to fly kites, using both metal and glass clippings. This can cause serious injury, especially to motorcycle and bicycle riders.
Aerial firing carried out during the celebrations, mostly using unlicensed arms, results in casualties.
The demand for electricity during the night of Basant cannot be met with and can overload the system, triggering an energy crisis.
Children are prone to accidents while flying kites on rooftops and running to grab falling kites on streets.
The concerns, while valid, are easily addressed with very little effort and proper governance. Kite flying associations and enthusiasts have long advocated simple measures that will eliminate purported dangers and make the sport of kite flying as safe, and probably safer, than, say, playing cricket. The measures that have been suggested are easy to implement and include:
An Enforced Ban on Dangerous Twine
A Moratorium on Bike Riding for a Twenty-Four Hour Period
Designation of Safe Areas for Kite Flying
Ban on Aerial Firing
Public Awareness Campaigns
Mobile Generators & Load Balancing
The fact that capable local bodies and competent law enforcement agencies can easily take the aforementioned measures is never admitted. The idea of using proper governance to manage the festival of Basant is considered to be as dangerous as the festival itself. Each year, the All Pakistan Kite Flying Association, the District Kite Flying Association Lahore, and numerous other organizations file appeals to lift the ban on flying kites; each year, they are disappointed by an inept, unresponsive, incompetent and, most of all, indifferent government.
Anti Basant Books
Basant has been a part of India and Pakistan’s cultural fabric for more than eight centuries. The rites and rituals of Basant have evolved during the last eight centuries. The most significant addition to the ceremonies has been the flying of kites which is now an intrinsic and arguably the most important part of celebrating Basant. Lahore has over the period of time become the one city that celebrates the festival with an enthusiasm and spirit that is not seen anywhere else. It is also the city which has contributed most to the growth and development of the festival.
The kite was invented in China in 5th century BC. Buddhist missionaries from China started the spread of kites first in Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma and subsequently throughout the world. Each country developed its own style of kite. The style that evolved in India is known as the fighter kite, or the patang (generic name for fighter kite), which competing kite flyers, known as patang baaz, use to engage in duels of kites in the air. The aim was to bring down each other’s kites by cutting the twine, or dor, used to fly the kites. The tradition of flying of kites as a competitive sport, known as patang baazi, was established in Lahore and continues to be practiced with requisite seriousness only in the city.
The tradition of flying kites was started by the Mughals after the victory of Emperor Babar over Ibrahim Lodhi. Kite flying started as a pastime of royalty, who were familiar with the sport due to their Mongol origins. The nawabs and rajas of India followed the royals and quickly became skilled in the art of flying kites. As the manufacture of kites became common in India, the entire nation became fond of flying kites; by the end of the sixteenth century kite flying had gained immense popularity all over the region. It is in the sixteenth century that the first references to flying kites on the Basant festival are found in literature, poetry and drawings. Patang baazi became the single most important part of celebrating Basant in the sixteenth century Lahore and continues to be an integral feature of the festival.
The sport of patang baazi in Lahore is highly competitive and played with a high level of seriousness. In addition to skill, the sport requires a peculiar maturity of temperament and a large amount of patience. It takes several years for a patang baaz to master the art of flying kites ad a few more to be recognized as a true khilaari (player).
The gear used for patang baazi is simple and mostly handmade. It consists of patang, dor, tandi (dor with knots towards the flying edge)and daang (staff).
Basant in the Walled City
Lahori Kites are made of guddi kaaghaz (tissue paper) and finely shaved sticks of dried bamboo. The vast majority of the kites are diamond shaped. The tissue paper is used for the sail and tail and the bamboo sticks for the spine and bow. A thread is run through the perimeter of the kite for reinforcement. Kites sold in Lahore have historically been made all over Punjab but the shops are concentrated in and around Mochi gate. The province is home to an estimated three hundred and fifty thousand kite makers.
The variety of kites sold in Lahore is staggering. Bava, Chag, Derh Kani, Do Akhal, Doli, Fighter Gudda, Gudda, Guddi, Ik Akhal, Koop, Laipo, Lucknow Kat, Machar, Pari, Pharphara, Rocket, Sharla, Tatoo, and Tukkal are a few of the kites sold here. Almost all of these kites fall under the category of fighter-kites and are differentiated by subtle differences in shape, size, proportions and structure. The most popular kites in Lahore are the Sharla, Derh Kani, Guddi, Gudda, Fighter Gudda, and Tukkal.
Basant Festival in Faizabad – Painting – 1774
The game begins when more than one kite flyers have their kites in the air. The goal is to bring the kite of the opponent by first entrapping it and then cutting the dor. The battle of dors and kites that ensues is known as paicha. This is something that is done unhurriedly. The practice of cutting an opponent’s dor with a sudden and hurried jerk, known as the qaincha, is frowned upon and considered unacceptable in Lahore. A protracted and leisurely paicha is savored and appreciated by kite flyers and initiated observers. A quick win is not really a win.
Victory is celebrated by loud cries of bow kaataa which is a corruption of woh kata (there, we cut it). The falling kite, known as the kati patang, no longer belongs to its owner or to anyone else. It becomes the property of the kite runner who is able to steal it using a tandi or a daang.
The tandi is a thick dor which has thread knots, matchsticks, or metal clips attached to its final fifteen feet. It is used to fly a small kite with the aim of stealing larger kites that have been cut and are in descent. The practice is known as chamorna and involves skillfully tangling the tandi with the dor of the falling kite. The Lucknow Kaat is used most often for chamorna, an art form as complex as that of flying kites competitively. A huge market has always existed for kites stolen through chamorna.
The daang (staff) is the fourth item associated with basant. Falling kites that escape experts of chamorna, are stolen by people using daangs which are usually bamboo poles with twigs attached to their far ends. Dried bougainvillea shrubs are considered the most suitable for this purpose; they are strong enough to engage a falling kite but pliable enough not to damage its face. The looting of the kati patang, known as patang lootna, often practiced by kids and the poor who cannot afford to buy their own, is as much of a sport as patang baazi and chamorna.
Cooks from outside the walled city find it hard to replicate the flavor, texture and aroma of its haleem
Basant came to Lahore at the start of the fifteenth century and was firmly established as an annual festival during the reign of Emperor Akbar who lived in the city from 1584 to 1598. The people of Lahore have, over the centuries, added to the rituals, rites and ceremonies of the festival, making Basant an elaborate celebration with a unique Lahori identity.
The focal point of the celebration of Basant in Lahore is inside the walled city. It is here that Basant is celebrated with a passion and enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism. The old city’s Basant has historically allowed a fair and equal participation of the rich and the poor, the old and the young, and the advantaged and the underprivileged. When communal and religious conflicts have threatened the largely secular nature of society, it has been the celebration of Basant that has brought people together.
During its long history, Basant has been used by rulers, clerics, politicians and many others, among other things, to create unfortunate religious and cultural divides. Indeed, there have been periods of time when Basant has been celebrated by Muslims at the shrine of Madhoo Laal Hussain, Sikhs at the Gurdwara Bhai Banno Ji Mangat and Hindus at the tomb of Haqiqat Rai. The artificial division of the celebration, thankfully, has always been short-lived and people have united during the Basant festivities of the inner city. Lahori Basant has historically been the only truly secular festival of Pakistan. Banned by inept governments, to please religious extremists, a corrupt police department and bigoted nationalists, the festival remains vividly alive in literature, poetry, art and, of course, the city’s collective memory. A part of Lahore’s cultural history, the traditional celebrations of Basant have been established, and clearly delineated, for centuries. They cannot be banned for long.
Policeman Apprehending A Young Boy for teh Crime of Flying Kites
The color basanti is the yellow color of the gainda phool. The color represents the rewards that come after sacrifice, loss and abstinence. Brides wear yellow on mehndi celebrations before their weddings in anticipation of the reward of a happy married life that comes after giving up the comforts of their parents’ homes. The yellow marigold flowers represent the rewards of spring that comes after the dreary winter. Basanti yellow celebrates indulgence that is allowed after periods of austerity and deprivation. It is a festival that permits one to act with crazy abandon, without worrying about the consequences and costs of celebration. It is the color of pure, unadulterated happiness.
Preparations for Basant would start several weeks before the festival. A lot of thought and effort went into selecting the clothes that women wore. The styles and designs could vary but basanti yellow had to be featured in clothing. Boutiques and designers brought out special Basant lines of clothes.
Food has always been the most important part of festivals and events held in Lahore. Basant is no different. The preparations for Basant included getting ready to cook for large parties of people celebrating the festival. A drink known as thandiaai, often spiked with bhang (cannabis), was very popular during Basant. Lassi (yoghurt drink) and hot Kashmiri chaye (pink tea) were consumed abundantly as well. Haleem and barbecued red meat was the food of Basant. Haleem is popular all over Pakistan but the variety prepared in the old city is decidedly superior and different. Cooks from outside the area find it hard to replicate its flavor, texture and aroma. The secret of the recipe, guarded for years, is now known only to a few in Lahore. In order to cook haleem properly, one needs to prepare the stock using chicken necks, goat trotters and marrow bones along with the regular variety of bones from the cow. The bones need to be roasted before they can be used for stock. Three types – chicken, mutton and beef – of boneless meat needs be used to prepare haleem. And the dish needs to be cooked slowly for about eight hours to achieve proper consistency. The tarka (hot oil flavor enhancer) needs to be done with garlic and oil in the serving dish after the addition of a little lemon juice. Crisp fried onions, slivers of ginger, chopped cilantro leaves, garam masaala (mixture of spices) should be used to garnish haleem before serving. Barbecued meat was a favorite at Basant. Lahoris love red meat and do not like spices that drown the taste of meat. Marinades are, therefore, simple. Good tikkas require the best quality of meat and a great deal of patience while being barbecued. The sooji ka halwa (semolina dessert) prepared for Basant in the walled city would be prepared with coarsely ground sooji (semolina) with more sugar and less water than the regular variety made at other times. The resulting texture and consistency allowed for eating using hands and no utensils.
The festivities of Basant began after maghrib (evening prayer) the day before the festival. The start of celebration was announced with the sounds of dhols and loud music. The area around badshahi masjid and taxali gate was known for fireworks and dancing in the streets to mark the commencement of Basant celebrations. The kites flown in the evening and through the night were usually of smaller sizes and white in color. They were flown at low altitudes to allow for visibility. Search lights were used in various parts of the city to increase visibility but the practice was for novices. Serious kite flyers did not fly kites at night and saved their energy for the day of Basant, spending the night preparing for the big day. Parties and gatherings of various sizes were organized all over the walled city on the day of Basant. Kite flying would start at the crack of dawn with the sound of whistles and continued throughout the day.
The twentieth century saw a tremendous evolution in the celebration of events. The biggest one being the inclusion of females, who were no longer relegated to cooking for men at the event but actively participated in the festivities. In addition to dressing up in yellow, women organized elaborate Basant parties and would fly kites side by side with men. Another development – a sad one – was the practice of aerial firing using the ubiquitous Russian Kalashnikov and other rifles to celebrate victories during patang bazi. Popular and film music also become an important part of Basant festivities. Bands were booked for parties throughout the city. Those who could not afford live music, used boomboxes to add music to their celebration.
This was one festival that allowed everyone a fair opportunity to participate in fun and merriment. It was certainly the one time that the poor and the disadvantaged had as much, and often more, fun than the rich and the privileged. The trappings of affluence are out of the reach of the average Lahori, but he could still afford patang, dor, tandi and dang, and enjoy himself at Basant without having to worry about the cost of celebration, his image, the impression he makes on others, and how his celebration outdoes that of others. Thank God for that.
Basant has not been celebrated in Lahore for years.
The sound of the centuries old adage – Aayi Basant, Pala Urant – is no longer heard. The chant, full of energy, hope and joy, has been drowned in the criminally irresponsible noise generated by politicians, clerics and the police.
Chaudhry Pervez Elahi issued the edict to ban the celebration of Basant in Lahore in the year 2005
The situation would be funny were it not so sad.
Chaudhry Pervez Elahi issued the edict to ban the celebration of Basant in Lahore in the year 2005. His hasty action came as a result of political pressure to cash in on the death of a young boy allegedly caused by razor sharp dorandto please the police and religious extremists. The Prohibition of Kite Flying Ordinance was promulgated in 2006. The Sharif brothers, raised in Lahore and its environs and known for their love for Lahori food and gluttony, displayed a curious antipathy towards Basant, a festival in which food plays an important part. The ordinance was re-promulgated in 2007 and the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Prohibition of Kite Flying (Amendment) Act which banned flying, manufacturing, selling and trading in kites and associated paraphernalia. In 2009, the Governer of Punjab, Salman Taseer, briefly lifted the ban on Basant. In an interview, Taseer said that Basant was an important part of the culture of Punjab and should be celebrated as a big cultural event. He vowed to celebrate the festival himself and open the gates of the Governor House to the general public who wished to join him in the festivities. His interview ignited severe condemnation, and Taseer was warned that he would be arrested and the Governor House besieged if he went ahead with his plans.
2009 was the last year in which the festival was celebrated in Lahore. The PML-N-led local government reinstated the ban in 2010. The prohibition on one of the last remaining avenues for having fun for Lahoris has been in place since that time. In 2013, the caretaker chief minister tried, unsuccessfully, to restore Basant celebrations. In 2014, the government decided to move the festivities out of the walled city to the denuded forests of Changa Manga. This would have been an act of heresy akin to taking the Carnaval out of Rio de Janeiro, Oktoberfest out of Munich and Songkran out of Thailand. The celebration was cancelled at the last minute.
The kite flying associations of Lahore continue to protest the ban – simultaneously an act of bravery and an exercise in futility – year after year. Applications to lift ban for a few days are filed each year with great regularity and denied with an equal amount of consistency. As in previous years, the District Kite Flying Association Lahore has filed an application this year to get permission to celebrate Basant. If the DCO’s office grants permission, Lahoris will celebrate Basant on March 7 and 8, 2015.
The festival used to bring more than a quarter million tourists to Pakistan each year. Airlines had to operate additional flights and the railways run extra trains to meet the demand created by people traveling to Lahore for Basant. The cost of the ban on Lahore, and consequently Pakistan’s economy, has been tremendous. Basant used to generate between seven and eight billion rupees in tourism revenue annually from the year 2000 to 2005. The ban has broken the back of the country’s weak tourism industry. The entertainment business has suffered innumerable losses because of the ban as well. The festival used to afford dancers, singers, musicians and entertainers a great opportunity to make an honest living. This is no longer the case. The ban has also ruined the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of poor people. Lahore is home to more than one hundred and fifty thousand kite-makers who have no skills other than kite-making. The city has been unable to provide the artisans alternative means of earning livelihoods. Forcibly unemployed, they now lead their sad lives in abject poverty.
No one has gained from the ban but our inept politicians, fanatical clerics, incompetent government officers, and corrupt police forces.
This is sad and must not be allowed to continue. It has to change.
Ally Adnan lives in Dallas where he works in the field of telecommunications. He can be reached at [email protected]