Basant, an event that marks the coming of spring, an event that would bring together people from all walks of life, an event that would cover the sky with colors, an event that would spread happiness ubiquitously. It was celebrated with a lot of vigor, passion and enthusiasm in Punjab, but unfortunately this vibrant and full of cheerfulness festival is becoming more of an historic event due to some unwise acts on part of illiterate, ignorant and reckless citizens. The ignorance of few has snatched away the happiness of million others and deprived the country of a great cultural festival.
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Basant is a centuries old cultural tradition of Punjab. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, all alike, celebrated it with great joy and gusto. Yellow is the color of the day as it depicts the blossoming spring flowers and the yellow mustard fields of Punjab. Girls would wear yellow saris and dupattas whereas boys would include yellow turbans in their clothing. There are no barriers of religions or different socio-economic class; everyone would get together and praise the day. Girls would get on the swings and sing the customary Basant songs that reflected the liveliness and romance of life in Punjab. Kite-flying was one of the main activities on the day and there would be competitions among people to cut loose others’ kites.
There cant be a better place to celebrate this day than the cultural and historic capital of Punjab, Lahore. It is also known as extremely festive and the most happening city of Pakistan. During the February of almost every year the sky above Lahore is filled with colorful kites during daytime and with white kites at night. Words like Booo Kata, Patang, Pecha, Pinna and Charkhi can be heard almost everywhere. Music and dance is everywhere and the air is filled with the aroma of intoxicating traditional food. Everyone is involved in this festival and all enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of multi-colored kites filling the sky above their beloved city of Lahore heralding the coming of a new spring. In the early days Basant was confined to the old-walled city, however over recent past it has spread to far corners of the city as well. People from different places celebrate this day in their unique style; some do it by flying kites while others get together and enjoy traditional food and bhangra music. While I was researching about Basant in Gwalmandi (area near old food street), I interviewed this young lad about the age of 15. I asked him what do you know about basant. He replied..” jab hum patangein uratay hein..” (the day when we fly kites). When I asked him about his preparations for that day, I was surprised to hear about his passion. He told me that he would start saving money from his pocket money 2-3 months before Basant. He would use those savings to buy kites and strings and collect them until the day of Basant. It is celebrated with great joy in Lahore, as Daily Times states:
“There is a lot of rush at kite shops, especially in old Lahore as children and middle-aged men gathered to purchase their favorite coloured kites and string. Rehan, an intermediate student said …the festival was part of the city’s culture, adding that a number of special dishes were also prepared for the occasion. Arsalan, a resident of the Walled City, said Basant was the event of colours and lights, adding that a number of people in his area had installed lights at their residences. He said “the dance of kites in lights” would be visible to everyone who would look up at the sky”.
Although Basant is celebrated throughout Pakistan, it is Lahore that made it popular all over the world as the largest kite festival. Revelers come from other towns and countries as well to experience this one of a kind event in the cultural heart of Punjab. They are entertained either by family and friends or by different touring companies. I was sitting with Mr Ivan Vrubel, a managing director of a Polish company, at the Pearl Continental Hotels, when topic of Basant came up. He got very excited and recalled his first basant in Lahore in the year 2004. I remember him saying something along the lines of ‘I came to Lahore for a meeting with my clients during feb 2004, after the meeting, they asked me to stay for the weekend for some festival called Basant. It was something new to me but still I decided to stay. The next morning they picked me from the guest house and drove me to one of their relatives house in Iqbal Town. Everyone was at the rooftop, dressed in bright colors, mostly yellow and white. I was presented with a yellow scarf. The sound systems were playing some sort of desi music, something I had never heard before. The young were flying kites and shouting Boo KAata after short intervals. At the sides a buffet was set with lots of desi foods. Being the food lover that I am, every time I got a chance I would run to the tables and grab something to eat. Everything was simply delicious. We danced and shouted until the dusk. It was something I have never experienced, pure Lahori Culture. Since then I have been coming to Lahore for the festival..”
Upon requesting a local tourist company who accommodate such outsiders, I was able to get my hands on one of their schedules for 2010 basant mela. On the first day visitors will be greeted at the airport in traditional style and then they will be taken to the hotels with proper guides explaining them about the festival in basant. Once they reach the hotels, they will be welcomed by cultural troupe serving them Lasi. Later they will be served with tradition array of food in Punjabi Cultural ambiance. After the food they will be taken to the old walled city to witness the night kite-flying and illuminate colorful, historical monuments and balconies. On the second day arrangements are made in lawns. The receptionists at the lawns will decorate the delegates with yellow scarves and Gajras (Bangles made with flowers). After the reception they will be entertained with Punjabi food. After the breakfast, a kite flying competition will be arranged and guests will be provided with free kites and strings. Through out the day, there will be performances by cultural troupe and famous folk singers. There will be display of dancing horses and jhumars. At night, there will be a tonga ride to the Food Street where guests will enjoy the food at the Punjabi Food Festival. At last there will be a tour on Bugees of Lahore streets at night, after which the delegates will be taken back to the hotels.
Although Basant brings so much happiness and positivity to the city, over the recent years it gained element of controversy resulting in a ban from the government. The ban was a result of several deaths of innocent citizens caused by glass-coated or metal strings. The families of the victims requested the Supreme Court to ban this sport for good. They were also successful to a great extent when the Chief Minister of Punjab, Mr Shehbaz Sharif, joined their cause. In one of his statement on the issue he said, ” We cannot allow people to play with the lives of ordinary citizens in the name of sport”. Afterwards a new twist was added to their protest when some members of the hardline extremist Muslim Jamaat-e-Islami party declared that the festival was initiated in the memory of haqiqat rai who was hanged for blaspheming against our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). As a result of this statement thousand of Muslims in the city started protesting against the festival. An advocate of Lahore High Court, MD Tahir, argued that many dangers, including the kite strings and power breakdowns, resulted from kite flying. As a result the kite flying was banned in Pakistan in 2005. And since then basant has been a bone of contention between two different groups, one in favor of basant while the second against it. Several liberal minds like Salman Taseer voted in favor of basant at several occasions. In an interview to the press at governor house in 2009 he said Basant was an important part of Punjab’s culture and it should be celebrated as a big cultural event, therefore, he would celebrate the festival and open the gates of the Governor House for general public who wish to join him. His statement faced several severe criticisms. Figures like Ahmed Salman Baloch, the president of organization Lahore, condemned the ex-governer and they warned him of besieging the Governor House if any such celebrations were carried out.
Those who advocate the ban of Basant base their arguments on several points. First in line are the Deadly wires used by some ignorants. These wires are coated with glass or are made of metal. These results in thousands of deaths each season. People have been shouting for ban of such strings but the police, who is already failing to control the rising street crime, has not done anything to stop the illegal manufacturing and sales of these deadly strings. But these metallic wires are not the only problem they mention of. Most enthusiasts of Basant are up on their roofs flying kites but unfortunately thousands of houses in Lahore do not have guard railings that can prevent people from falling. This brings us to their second argument; the insecure rooftops causing several deaths. During the festival, people are so indulged in kite flying that often they forget about their safety and often go beyond the safe areas in pursuit of something that might even take away their lives. Their third argument is that Basant is for the rich only as it brings nothing but grieves and inconvenience for the poor. On the day of Basant people riding bicycles and motorcycles are most unsafe as the constant threat of sharp strings cutting their throats haunts them. Last week I met a street hawker selling Gol Gappas, we got into talking about his daily sales and stuff. I saw it as a perfect opportunity to take his view on Basant. He was flabbergasted at the mention of that subject shouting ” Sahib bohat bari laanat hai yeh Basantâ€¦ 2 saal pehlay mera bhanja motorcycle pe ja raha tha aur is thandi ki waja se us ka gala kat gayaâ€¦”(sir, Basant is a curse..two years ago my nephew died after his throat was cut by this string). It is unfair for those belonging to a low socio-economic class. Some even believe that its like saying, ” if you don’t own a car, too bad – you cant go out”. Another evil that prevails on Basant is Aerial Firing. Some ill-mannered people, not caring about the consequences of their actions, fire hundreds of bullets into the sky. They do this merely for the joy of defeating anyone in the kite-flying competition or just for the sake of showing off. Several people lost their lives when those bullets on their way back to ground pierced right through their skulls. Another reason for their hatred was the electricity breakdowns caused by those metal strings. It would result in hours of blackout and the whole town suffered from electricity loss for hours. The Lahore Electric Supply Company, which claims Basant costs it £180,000 in lost revenue and damaged equipment every year Finally, they oppose Basant on religious basis. As stated already, some think that basant is celebrated in the memory of a Hindu who was hanged for blasphemy. Since most of the population of Lahore is Muslim, they were able to get quite a large vote on this point.
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On the other hand there is a group who are in favor of this festival. They are more liberal towards the whole issue of celebrating Basant. Figures suggest that there are detrimental effects of the ban imposed by the government on the industry. General secretary of Lahore Kite Flying Association, Sheikh Muhammad Saleem, said that almost 500000 families are directly or indirectly related to the kite flying business. The business has grown over the last few years to a massive Rs 500 Million industry. The cost of the paper used in kite making is estimated at around Rs 110 million and the cost of the string is estimated at around Rs 60 million. The process of kite making involves around Rs 70 million. He added ‘ I know a lot of people who have discontinued this business and are now doing labor… People from different countries thronged the city to celebrate the melaâ€¦ rooftops of all hotels were booked and everyone from fruit vendors to pan sellers, all felt the economic boomâ€¦”Muhammad Siddique, a kite seller in Gwalmandi, was working as a laborer. ” I never thought that my business could be ruined like this and I would become a labourer. ” he said, adding, ‘although it was a seasonal business, I used to earn more in one season than I do working for the whole year as a laborer.” Apart from economic aspects of the festival, there were other benefits as well. On this day friends and families get together to celebrate the arrival of spring. Everyone enjoys those delicious foods and the Bhangra music. Upon asking about Basant, Mrs. Sameen, a 36 year old housewife and resident of DHA, replied, “I miss Basant, we used to go to my parent’s place in Model Town on the night of Basantâ€¦ my father made all the arrangements for BBQâ€¦ children would fly kites while others would enjoy the meal and chit chats in the open airâ€¦I wish somehow we could do that again.”
As mentioned earlier Basant brought a lot of tourism to Pakistan as it portrayed a positive image of the nation throughout the world. People from countries like USA, England, UAE, Canada, Germany and France used to come to Lahore to enjoy the basant mela. This inflow of tourists during the spring season had a collateral effect on the other businesses as well. For example, the hoteling and restaurant businesses had a surge in customers that meant increased revenues for the aforementioned sectors. Apart from this, such tourists also visited other historic sites of Lahore such as the Lahore fort, badshahi mosque and food street which brought revenues to the local businesses. “Since 9/11, people think Pakistanis are terrorists but it’s not true. We are a liberal, fun-loving people,” said Syed Zulfiqar Hussain, the organiser of the festival. He estimates that Basant brings £20m into Punjab. Owner of a local restaurant, Mr Bilal Tanweer told me in an interview that during the three months of the basant season he used to witness a surge in sales because of the tourists who used to spend big bucks during their holidays. However with the passage of time and diminishing basant festivities, there has been a declining trend in the overseas tourists and hence his business has been suffering.
Based on the one to one interviews and the research carried out, it is evident that the ban on Basant should be lifted because of its detrimental effects on the economy as well as the culture of the City. In times like these when Pakistan is going through a critical situation, wherever one see one finds some news that is not very pleasing, news like bomb blasts, murders of innocents or price hikes, one can use some days to divert his mind away from such events. Events like Basant could cater to such needs of Pakistani nation. Apart from that Basant has been part of the rich Lahori Culture for decades. Since the medieval times, Basant was acknowledged and celebrated by the Chishti saints. Nizamuddin Auliya of delhi turned it into an act of devotion, and Amir Khusrau’s songs captured the multi-layered evolution of this festival. Punjabi poets such as Shah Hussain gave a Sufi flavor to it. Hussain, in one of his Kaafis, says: ‘The Beloved holds the string in his hand and I am His kite.” The festival offers a meaning to all and sundry: from playful kids to lovers and Sufis; from profit-seekers who developed livelihoods around the basant mela to the community as a whole. Basant was never an “unislamic” festival. Every individual of the society, regardless of the fact that they are Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs, as all communities prior to partition celebrated it, should celebrate it. Aman Ullah Khan Arman in his book “Urs Aur Melay” published in 1959 by Kitab Manzil Lahore, writes: “Basant is a seasonal festival of Indo-Pak sub-continent and it has no religious bearings. Basant is the herald of the spring and is celebrated in winterâ€¦”
Efforts should be made to make this festival as peaceful and safe as possible. All the necessary measure should be taken to avoid any sort of casualty. Bikes should be made safe with antinas, wires or safety screens as it was proposed in 2009 and 2010. This would eliminate the danger of deaths by sharp glass coated strings. Although this might add a little to the expenses of the rider but hey, nothing is costly than one’s life. If possible the government should provide the public with such rods and increase public awareness regarding their safety. Apart from these rods, the metal strings used in kite flying should be controlled. Strict bans should be imposed on their production and who ever violates the law should be imprisoned and severely punished. According to a survey there are two companies that manufacture such dangerous strings that threaten life. The issue is definitely not kite-flying or the festival; it’s the deadly string that amputates anything it comes in contact with. Lahore Kite Flying Association should standardize the type of twine or string allowed to be used on Basant. If this is done with success, no matter how big the kite is made, the string will never cut anyone’s throat. Other than those producing the metal strings, the user of such strings should also be made accountable and their activities relinquished. This would prevent the electricity losses during Basant and millions of rupees in losses faced by LESCO. The Aerial firing has to be stopped as it killed several innocents in last years. It can be easily done if the Police is given some authorities. It was done previously in 2009 by Shahbaz Sharif, so it can be done again. To protect young children and others from falling from roofs, adults must supervise them or if possible the kite flying competitions should be arranged in open grounds. Ahsan Irfan is a 23 year old student of Punjab University who hurt his arm in a tumble from a roof while flying a kite in 2006. He said ‘I am saddened that Basant has been bannedâ€¦it is a helpful activity and we should be given a chance to relax and distract ourselves from all the sad things happening in the country right now”. I remember that when 7 years ago I came to Lahore for Basant with my family, we went to the Race Course Ground on Jail Road. We were accompanied some family friends from Upper Mall and Johar Town. It was a beautiful day. I found colors everywhere I looked in the ground. From a 4 year old to a 75-year-old guy, everyone was present to celebrate the Festival of colors. It was so peaceful. If Basant is organized in such grounds, it could give an opportunity to everyone to enjoy Basant in an undisturbed and calm manner spreading nothing but happiness.
Basant should be celebrated with all the zest and energy. Everyone is caught up in the spirit and celebrations of the festival. Maybe it’s because all one really needed to celebrate is a long string and a kite. Everywhere one looks, one can find people attired and decorated in a palette of colors. It helps more like rehabilitation in revitalizing a new spirit to rejuvenate the upset hearts and so to add all the strength and energy to the life of people ridden with political instability and strife. Basant associates to an astonishing and significant boost to the economy and a way to place Lahore proud on the cultural map of the world. Although India has been trying to adapt the festival for several years now but the truth is that Basant is essentially a Lahori tradition that runs in our blood. “Kite flying is my passion, I am crazy about kite flying and I will do what ever it takes to restore this festival,” says an 18-year-old enthusiast. This is one festival people enjoy irrespective of the suffocating shackles of social or economic class. It yields huge revenues for the government without costing much. The government should announce Basant in advance so that people from all over the world can make plans and take care of the security arrangements because the ban on Basant is a great cultural loss to Lahore and to Pakistan in general, and with the ban on Basant in its 7th year, the city is a poorer place.
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