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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 19:05 GMT
Lahore kite festival takes off
Kite flying in Lahore
Kite flyers try to cut their rivals from the sky

Tens of thousands of people have poured on to the streets and filled the rooftops of the Pakistani city of Lahore for Basant, the festival that marks the start of spring.

Events will continue over the next few weeks and spread across the country.

During Basant, we can forget out problems, all our economic troubles

Muqaddas Babar, a student
But the highpoint of the celebrations is the show of dancing and kite flying at the start.

For 24 hours, thousands of multi-coloured kites fill the skies, their elegant flight picked out during the night by spotlights.

That's if the lights are on.

Frequently the whole scene is plunged into darkness when kite wires stray across electricity lines and blow out transformers.

Battle cries

By day, the numbers multiply as the flying competition reaches a frenzy.

Kite enthusiasts in Lahore
The flying goes on despite religious opposition

This is no ordinary kite flying - most participants use string coated by hand in a doughy substance which is impregnated with pulverised glass.

To screams of "pecha", or battle, the kite flyers steer their paper birds into the path of others and, with a tiny flick of the wrist, try to cut them down.

A joyous cry of "bo kata" means success.

Kite flyers also have to watch out for the people - mostly children - prodding the sky with long bamboo sticks with branches attached to the end.

The scene pulses to the accompaniment of music blasting from every rooftop.

"Lahor Lahori", they tell you with a smile. "That's the way we do things here".

'Sell-out'

Not everyone, though, is quite so pleased; least of all the religious right.

The clerics see the festival as un-Islamic and pagan, not just because it encourages immodest behaviour, but because it is celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus as well as Muslims.

Syed Munawar Hasan, secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, said Basant had become a symbol of Pakistan's sell-out to Western values and ambitions.

Participants in the Basant festival, Lahore
The Basant festival is now a society event

"Our government supported the bombing of Afghanistan, it supports the war against Iraq and it supports Basant," he said.

Many of those celebrating, however, like accountancy student Muqaddas Babar, dismissed the concerns, saying the festival was harmless fun.

"During Basant, we can forget out problems, all our economic troubles," he said.

The festival is a tradition of the Punjab region, pre-dating the partition and the creation of Pakistan.

It was once fairly modest, celebrating the first harvest and marking the time for the first sowing of crops after winter.

But it has expanded in the past few years and is now a society event.

Pakistan's glitterati, film stars, top politicians, models, business tycoons and designers flock to Lahore for the many high society balls and parties.

Money spinner

Despite their highly visible presence, Basant does cut across the social classes.

All that is needed to take part is a paper kite and some glass-covered string - everyone has those.

It is also a money spinner, attracting sponsors and visitors to Pakistan at a time when many are staying away because of security fears.

For a country accused of harbouring militants and struggling to portray itself as safe and fun, that counts for something.

There is, however, a dark side to Basant - people killed or injured falling from buildings or by walking into the paths of cars while flying kites or gazing at them in the sky.

This year the police said two youths were killed and more than 100 people injured.

See also:

11 Feb 03 | South Asia
24 Dec 02 | South Asia
14 Jan 03 | South Asia
17 Jan 03 | South Asia
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