100 Days in India Project

Boys flying a kite over Varanasi for the Maker Sankranti festival in India

22/ 100 Kite Flying

One of the ridiculously large number of festivals that Hindus celebrate in India is called Makar Sankranti, or Pongal if you live in the Tamil areas of the south. I think Indian people just love a festival because, no matter their religion, they seemed to celebrate anything they could find. We saw relics of a Christmas, two months past, and even Valentine’s day where random people would walk by and wish us a happy day. There are several key parts to the Maker Sankranti festival that I shall get around to mentioning in the future but seeing this picture of this particular young cow in Varanasi reminded me of one of them – kite flying. 

Why might an image of a cow recall memories of kites? Well, kite flying in India is HUGE. For weeks before Makar Sankranti, and for weeks after, people are completely obsessed with it and you will find bits of brightly coloured kites littering every surface. Children especially clamber up to the roofs of the tall buildings in the towns to fly their homemade kites, and, according to our Indian friends, fall to their deaths far too often. 

Flying a kite in India is a sport. You can do it for the glory, or perhaps for the the enjoyment of seeing your little bits of paper and plastic floating high up in the smog, but a lot of folk prefer kite fighting or kite duelling. The idea is to use your aviation skills to fly a tight circle to cleverly wrap your kite’s string around your opponents string, pulling it at the perfect moment to cut your rival’s line and claim the detached kite for yourself. As long it doesn’t fall into the river or get stuck in a tree or TV ariel. Even if it does fall into the river all is not lost as we saw boatmen collect them and bring them back to shore for the eager youngsters.

Although apparently outlawed it is common for people to use kite string that has been treated with ground glass to make it extra vicious, and highly dangerous. It is called Manja. Imagine a town covered with spider’s webs of lethal kite string hanging from every conceivable perch – that is what it is like. Locals will shout out a warning if you are about to garrotte yourself unknowingly, but in the darkness of night it was brutal. As well as the danger posed by the high roofs our Indian friends told us that there are a lot of injuries from the kite string itself and I am not at all surprised.

Back to the poor cow. As well as all the bits of broken kites and deadly Manja there are literally miles of discarded string everywhere. The little string bird’s nests accumulate in dank corners of alleyways and stairwells until they are released by a gust of wind and free to join other piles of wild string to make synthetic tumbleweed. Inevitably it gets snagged on the piles of flower garlands and old chapatis that litter the ground and this hungry cow had managed to accidentally consume a fair bit of the deadly string along with its breakfast of scraps. It was all over its face and down its throat. I always carry a pen knife and managed to cut its jaw free and pull a good arm’s length of string and goop out of this poor guy’s throat. 

My artist wife, Fiona Wilson, made some amazing prints of our trips to India and many featured the kite flying. You can see some of her work here https://www.fionawilson.net/india/.