Today is Makar Sankrati in India. Despite the title, it’s not just about flying kites. Makar Sankrati is a winter solace festival in India (and in other some other Asian countries) and is one of the major festival in the Hindu calendar. From Sanskrit, makar comes from the word makara, meaning the sun-sign of Capricorn. Sankranti means the movement of the sun from one zodiac sign into another, and so Makar Sankranti refers to the movement of the sun into Capricorn, and a movement into longer days and warmer weather – it’s winter there now.
Although Makar Sankranti is possibly its most well-known name, the festival is known by many other names all over India. You may have heard of Pongal, as it’s known in the south-western state of Tamil Nadu.
How do people celebrate Makar Sankranti? Depending on where in India someone lives, they might wear new clothes, eat sweets, build a bonfire, bathe in a holy river or draw rangoli (a pattern drawn on the floor with coloured rice, flour, sand or with flower petals). They’re also very likely to fly kites!
Last year I was in Pushkar, a small town in Rajasthan, for the festival. In the few days leading up to the festival the town was at a fever pitch as young boys (and not-so-young boys!) spent up big on kites and string from make-shift stalls. The excitement in the air was palpable! My friend bought dozens of kites (just like the ones in the photo, made simply from coloured tissue paper and bamboo) for himself, his sister and his two sons, and 6km worth of string! Yes, 6!
The day was absolutely delightful. Everyone was on their rooftops and the sky was full of thousands of brightly coloured kites. It was very much a family day, with everyone playing kites together – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, groups of friends. It was lovely to see. However, although it looked peaceful, the sky became a battleground as kids tried to ‘cut’ the strings of other kites with their own. You would hear someone yell ‘cut!’, a cheer would go up and the defeated kite, whose string had been cut, would fall slowly to the ground.
These brings me to a very serious side of kite flying. Often the string used to cut an opponent’s kite is manja, a string that is gummed and coated with powdered glass. Last year in Delhi in August, on India’s Independence Day (also a popular day to fly kites), 2 children and a man died after having their throats accidentally slit by kite string. The death toll for animals, birds in particular, is much higher. Government officials are now moving to ban this string.