It was incredible to be in Surat for the two days of Uttarayan, the kite flying festival. Surat’s kite flying fame is rivaled only by the fame of its superb cuisine (which I ate non-stop on my visit thanks to my wonderful family, but that’s a different story).
If you want a full set of kites to fly through both days, you would probably visit one of the vendors in Patang Galli in the old city to buy kites in bulk (I was told 10-15 kites per person per day is the norm). But every street corner in the city has a kite vendor, for any last-minute purchases.
This vendor in the Adajan neighborhood carries kite, reels of manja or kite string and noisemakers that you can blow on every time your kite cuts down another kite. This little girl arrived with her dad and took her time picking a kite to go with her pink reel of manja.
Part of the drama of the kite flying festival is that you don’t just fly kites. Your kite string is coated with powdered glass, so you can cut down a rival kite as you battle on in the skies.
This glass-coated string is produced in the old part of the city where men wearing face masks to keep glass dust out take huge reels of string and run it through a mixture of water, glue, and finely powdered glass. The coated string is allowed to dry on large spindles made with bicycle wheels and then transferred to smaller handheld spindles that you can buy.
I spent an Uttarayan evening on the terrace of an apartment. The rooftops of apartments all around us were filled with kite flyers. And where there’s a group of people, there’s a party with music and food. Our rooftop had a stall serving 165 different egg-centric dishes, all made to order while you waited. Most involved green garlic, and tons of Amul butter and cheese.
You can tell a kite flyer by their fingers that are taped up to prevent cuts from the manja. Every kite flyer needs an assistant who holds and unravels their spool of manja as they need it. There was lots of talk of kite-tying techniques as kites got cut down and replaced wiht new ones. Some styles of tying give you more control over the flight path, and others let you dodge and dance more freely in the sky. If you want to seem totally in the know, ask a kite-flyer “What’s your patang (kite) tying style? Are you a 0-0 or a 1-0?”
I was hoping to see the famed kites lit by lanterns that are traditionally flown at the end of the day as darkness descends. But sadly, they have been replaced by giant LED kites. Still, my Uttarayan experience was every bit as magical as I imagined it to be.