The sky is freckled with kites on the day when the sun enters the zodiac of Makara or Capricorn. The sun commences its northward journey on Uttarayan (Uttar - North, Ayan - toward movement) and signifies the end of winter. This day is celebrated by sending out kites to the clear blue sky. The kites are of various shapes, sizes and colours, swaying and playing along with the tug of strings in the January wind. The strings hold a significant place too. Manja (kite-string) making is a traditional skill, which is handed down over generations and families jealously guard their secret recipes for the Manja paste.

Usage

The usage of kites has not changed much over the years. They are flown extensively during festivals, mostly Uttarayan. The intention of flying is purely for recreation or as healthy competition. The fighter kites with sharp threads are used in competitions. The kites have also been seen quirkily used as wall decorations in present times.

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Significance

Indian fighter kites are bought with much care and scrutiny. Expert flyers are very particular about the right combination of the tautness of paper surface and the spring on the bamboo skeleton. Kite flying is an integral part of the Indian festivities, characteristically turning rooftops into bustling spaces with various families generously hosting kite fliers. 

When the festival day approaches, more and more shops, which previously sold shoes or hardware, convert to kite stalls. Around the time of Uttarayan, the entire marketplace comes alive with colour and going to buy a kite becomes an occasion in itself. Apart from the innumerable colours and many shapes of kites, different types of Manja (strings), many other accessories are also sold. These include protection gear like tapes to protect fingers from the glass coated string and sunglasses to adhesive paper tapes for repairing kites to articles for pure entertainment such as blow horns, headgear and masks. Kite-making craft is also a source of seasonal employment with high returns where even a small pushcart or street corner is transformed into an instant kite shop.

Since 1989, Gujarat has been hosting the Gujarat International Kite Festival around the time of Uttarayan. Kite enthusiasts from all over the world come to display their skill and a variety of kites. The Gujarat government invites kite masters from all over- the world and display their best made kites too woo the awestruck crowd. Ahmedabad also houses a kite museum, which was established by Bhanubhai Shah who was a great connoisseur and collector of kites.

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Myths & Legends

Regardless of the theories of its origin, it is the wind that deserves the credit for this discovery. The legend has it that the hat of a Chinese farmer blown by the wind helped create the first kite. 

Like the ancient Greeks, Indians too give importance to the sun as a god of intelligence and wisdom. Sankranti means transmigration of Sun from one zodiac in Indian astrology to the other. As per Hindu customary beliefs, there are 12 such Sankrantis in all. Derived from ancient Indian language, the word 'Sankranti' is the transition of the Sun from Sagittarius ('Dhanu' Rashi) to Capricorn ('Makara' Rashi). In this case, the zodiacs are measured side-really, and not tropically, in order to account the Earth's precession. That is why the festival falls about 21 days after the tropical winter solstice, which lies between December 20 and 23rd. This special day in mid-January marks the moment when the God Sun (Surya) begins its ascendancy and enters into the northern hemisphere. 

Though there is not any religious belief behind the idea of flying kites. People fly kites on this day because by doing it unknowingly they receive the benefits of sun exposure. During winter, our body gets infected and suffers with cough and cold and rough skin and many other common diseases like bronchitis and sinusitis due to the cold climate during this season. So when on January 14 the sun enters into northern hemisphere, it terminates the cold winter season bringing along warmer spring days. Its rays act as medicine for the body. Coming in contact with direct sun and constantly being exposed to sunrays, automatically cures some of these diseases and eradicates most of the infections and insanitation, as sunlight is said to have great healing power and tremendous health benefits.

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History

Kites were been brought into India by Muslim traders or Buddhist religious pilgrims coming from China to obtain sacred texts. Most people believe that kites were first brought into India by Chinese travellers, Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang but from there the kites have taken their own evolutionary route in India. It has always had a special place in the history of India and some even believe that it dates back to the invasions of Mongols who converted to Islam. Therefore, even today it is Muslim community who make them.

As regards Indian literature, Manzan mentioned kites for the first time in Madhumati. They were called Patang. Here, the flight of a kite is associated with the loved one by a poet. Marathi poets Eknath and Tukaram also described kites in their verses where the word 'vavdi' has been used. In the book, The Complete World of Kites, Bill Thomas depicts that the kite played a vital role in an early territory battle between Hindus and Muslims. 

In 1300 AD, the word 'Gurdhi' meaning 'kite' was first used in a Hindustani song by the composer Santnambe. The word 'Patang', a generic term for 'kite', was used by the poet Manzan in many of his poems during 1542 AD. The rulers or the Nawabs of Lucknow used to fly their kites from their palace rooftops with a small purse of gold or silver attached which was an incentive for the others to try cutting down the kite to retrieve the precious prize. 

Sawai Ram Singh, the king of Jaipur, was also very fond of kites and commissioned a patang khana or kite factory in the 16th century to specially make kites for him. The fragile nature of Indian kites has prevented the survival of any of these old specimens today. We can only get a glimpse of them in the paintings of that time. There are some paintings from the 16th Century in the personal collection of H.H. Brigadier Bhawani Singh, erstwhile ruler of Jaipur, which show kites being flown in Jaipur during the visit of some Portuguese padres to the court of Sawai Ram Singh.

The Mughals encouraged high levels of craftsmanship and did not undermine the kite-making craft too. The Muslim community mostly dominates the craft and trade of the kites to this day. The spirit of maintaining quality while opening up to new markets keeps the kite makers relevant in the present times. 

Makar Sankranti holds special significance as on this day the solar calendar measures the day and night to be of equal durations on this day. From this day onwards, the days become longer and warmer. It is the day when people of northern hemisphere, the northward path of the sun marks the period when the sun is getting closer to them. The Aryans who started celebrating this day as an auspicious day for festivities signified the importance of the day. The reason behind this may be the fact that it marked the onset of harvest season. Even in the epic of Mahabharata, an episode mentions how people in that era also considered the day as auspicious. Bhishma Pitamah even after being wounded in the Mahabharata war lingered on till Uttarayan set in, so that he can attain heavenly abode in auspicious times. It is said that death on this day to brings Moksha or salvation to the deceased.

The symbolism of this festival is to show the awakening of the Gods from their deep sleep. Through India's history, it is said that India created the tradition of kite flying due to the kings and Royalties later followed by Nawabs who found the sport entertaining and as a way to display their skills and power. It began as being a sport for kings, but over time, as the sport became popular, it began to reach the masses. 

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Design

Simple geometric designs, stripes and circular or semicircular designs in contrasting colours are quite common. While the basic shape of the Indian kite remains largely unchanged from the diamond, there are subtle variations according to the region and requirement. With time, the surface decorations on kites have gone through a lot of changes with pictures of celebrities and politicians, musicians and sports stars, quotes and words becoming a part of the kite's body. The kite paper used is now largely replaced with glittery and metallic coloured plastics, which last longer but harm the environment when they scar the city after the days of Uttarayan. 

Parts of a kite ~ Irrespective of the variety of natural or synthetic materials used in its construction, parts of a kite are specific. These are: Sail, which is the covering material. Most kites have Bridle. Exceptions are those, which fly by attaching the flying line directly to a fixed point on the kite. Bridle is the set of fixed lines that attach to important points on the frame to hold the kite in a proper flying place. The third part is Frame, which consists of rigid materials. Sail and the bridle together create a frame with the help of wind. The fourth part is Line. This is the flying line to tether them into the wind.

Patang ~ This is the most common Indian kite. The height/width ratio is generally 1:1.2. A thin thread along the circumference of the kite reinforces its edges and the overlapping paper is glued back on to the sail. This is a tail-less kite. The tail is generally a small double triangular piece of tissue, pasted such that the bottom edge is flush with the level of the sail, with thin bamboo slivers along the outer edges for reinforcement.

Guddi  ~ Almost as popular as the patang, this variation generally has a height/width ratio in reverse -1.2:1. In other words, the kite is taller than it is wide. The tail in this kite is generally a small tassel of tissue paper.

Dedh Kanni ~ This is a little uncommon and is generally used in lower winds - The kite is significantly broader than the regular patang and the height/width ratio tends to be close to 1:1.5. It shares the triangular patch tail with its parent patang.

Tukkal ~ This shape is more akin to the Malaysian Wau than the patang and is almost never seen in Indian skies except at Kite Festivals. In Pakistan, though, it is still a popular design. Twin double-bows make this a very "heavy" kite and not many people possess the skill to fly it. Besides, the time and energy required making one; you wouldn't like to lose it by risking it in a kite battle.

Flight Attitude ~ This flying device could be as huge as even more than 50 feet in diameter. Tethered to an anchor point that is either static or moving, its flight attitude is, that it should fly in a reasonably steady fashion at an angle of 15 degrees above the tether point for a sustained period. The movement is controlled in the wind direction with threads attached to it in a hand-held pin-roll. It is carried by the wind and kept afloat.

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Challenges

Safe working spaces to the worker of the kite strings has become an issue because of increased traffic and pollution. The wounding of birds and animals due to the sharp glass on the Manja has been a long-standing problem. The craft is harmful in the long run for the craftsmen itself since the minute glass particles are absorbed into the bloodstream while it is rubbed by hand into the threads, even though gloves and coverings are used. Addressing this without affecting the livelihood of the craftsmen has been a constant challenge.

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