Issue 41: Uttarayan International Kite Festival

After being asked for the second time in a row to attend the Uttarayan International Kite Festival held on January 11th through 15th of this year in Ahmedabad, India, I without hesitation shot off a reply to the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat saying – Oh yea!!

Now if you have never heard about or experienced Indian time, I will try and explain it. In India they do not go by standard time, but a time they call “streeeetchhh” time, meaning planes, buses, trains, dinner engagements etc. may arrive, depart, starting at say 8pm. Then again it may be 8:05, 8:15, 8:30, 8:40… Well, you get the picture.

Having said that… I knew I had switched over to India “stretch time” from the time my flight started to leave Seattle for Los Angeles. We had just pulled away from the gate when the pilot came on the intercom and stated there would be a delay due to the weather in L.A. which had knocked out the instrument landing system on 2 runways. One hour and 15 minutes later we leave the gate again, only to wait 20 more minutes for the changing of the wind direction. Come on now, lets just take off! “Stretch time.”

L.A. Tom Bradley International Airport, Air India, 2 hour flight delay – “stretch time.” Thank goodness I had contacted Johnny Hsiung, a fellow fighter kite pilot and long time friend upon my arrival in L.A., because about a half hour later he shows up with an In-N-Out burger and fries in hand.

I am finally in the air with a stop in Frankfort on the way to Mumbai/Bombay. Frankfort – unload the plane of all the passengers and their carry-on for restocking and cleaning. 2-hour delay – “stretch time.” 1 hour delay boarding the plane at Mumbai for Ahmedabad, then sit on the plane for another 2 hours, for who knows why before departure. Total 3 hour delay – “stretch time.”

Hooray!  I am in Ahmedabad, 4 ¾ hours late, but there. All said and done, I left Seattle at 8:15 pm January 7th and arrived in Ahmedabad 11:45 am January 9th. What a great sight to meet up with Sriram, my tour guide from last year and I’m also in his group this year. We were taken to the Hotel Nalanda where we would be staying for our duration. It is classified as a 3 star hotel by Indian standards. Located within the hotel was the Velvet restaurant where we ate quite often. If you were ever in Ahmedabad I would recommend it for a nice place to stay. Very clean, with a great staff, and most of all hot water at all times for your shower.

Since we were the first “kitists” to arrive, we had our own pick of rooms, and since I was by myself, Sriram asked if I minded sharing my room with another kite flyer. A young flyer named Peter from Indonesia was also by himself, so we shared the room together. I could not have asked for a better person to share with. We got settled in and then had lunch and met with a few of the other flyers that had arrived. A note here to say that the International flyers were split into 2 groups, A and B. My group was A group, which had 27 people assigned to it.

I found the same stall (tent) as last year, and unlike last year I only bought 400 kites instead of 500 to bring home with me. You know, a person has to have enough kites to do battle with! In the evening we walked around a few blocks from the hotel to take in the night feeling of Ahmedabad.

January 10th

After breakfast we went to visit the grounds where Gandhi lived from 1918 to 1930. It was then off to visit the oldest temple in Ahmedabad, of the Jain religion. The Jain religion has only 24 gods, versus 30 + million of the Hindu religion. Even though it only comprises 1.3% of the population it is the richest of all the religions in India.

Back to the hotel for lunch. Since a few of the new arrivals and others wanted to go to the kite market, off we went again. This time 3 of us that went earlier walked a couple of blocks past the kite market and visited some of the other businesses.

By that evening all of the kitists had arrived so everyone gathered in the courtyard of the hotel where all the rest of the kitists were staying, for dinner and to receive instructions and hand crafted cloth vests we were to wear the next day. It was a great pleasure to meet up with past friends and fliers. Peter Stauffer and John Gordon from Australia. Abdul, master kite builder from Mumbai, along with Dilips, Asghar Belim from Jaiphur and so may others.

A big surprise was seeing Ludo Pitit (sp?) Karine from France and president of the Manjha Club International.

January 11th (Inauguration of the Gujarat International Kite Festival)

By 8 am we arrived at the police stadium grounds where the opening ceremonies and festivities were held throughout the day. Festivities started off with performances by 3 different dance groups and then greetings to all the kitists and an opening speech by Honorable Chief Minister Mori. Then all of the countries gathered backstage and were assigned to a model to be escorting us on stage as the announcer gave our name and what country we were from.

Somehow my name got to the top of the list as whenever and where ever the kitists were introduced, I had the pleasure of being the first on to go on. Being the only kitist from the USA, I had a model all to myself. Her name is Nilan and she told me it meant diamond, precious jewel. As you can see, she is a very exotic gem. Needless to say, for a few short minutes, I had the honor of escorting her on stage, and not the other way around.

About noon we went to our cubicles and out to the performance area to fly kites. All the kite fliers had the same problem as last year – little to no wind. When the wind did come up at short bursts, large and small kites managed to go aloft for a few minutes to the thrill of the crowd. Then the people were allowed to stroll by the booths to view the displays up close. The scenario was very well controlled by the security police that were provided. Without that security and the unlimited curiosity of the people, it could become very chaotic.

After packing the kites away, we went back to our hotels to freshen up before being taken to the Narayani resort for dinner. This evening would be the last time groups A & B would be together as a unit. Upon arriving at our hotel around 10 pm, Sriram informed us the bus and he would be there in the morning to pick us up at 6:30 am for travel to yet another field to put on a mini kite festival. The one thing I learned right off, when it comes to the tourism council of Gujarat, they have not yet learned about the “stretch time.” When they say a time, you can set your watch by it. For the next two days, their excellent program was set up so the two groups to visit 4 cities that had never seen a kite festival of this nature, with all the different styles and sizes.

January 12th

As we pull away from the hotel, Sriram informed us that this year their program was set up so that we were not only a kitist, but we would become tourists so they could show “us” some of the beauty & culture of India. After about an hour’s drive north, we arrived in Modhera and had breakfast at the Jordan cafeteria near the sun temple. It was built in the 11th century and dedicated to the Sun God. In that time period, Modhera was a place of great importance and the former Hindu capitol of Gujarat. From there, we head further north for about 45 minutes to Patan, home of the North Gujarat University and where the kite festival was to be held.

At both venues, here and at the city the next day, we were treated like high dignitaries and escorted in and out of the town and the venue by a front and rear police escorts. This was the only time I saw all traffic come to a stand-still. Upon arriving at the University, we were greeted by the Mayor and Chief of Police, along with a few other city officials. Also there was, for lack of a better term, a 5 piece marching band playing Indian music. We were escorted through the archway over the street leading to the university, where we again received a red dot (bindi), with a couple of grains of rice placed on our forehead between our eyes along with being given a small bouquet of flowers.

We then walked about a block to board the bus to take us to the parade grounds. As we walked, there were young ladies lined on both sides adorned in their colorful traditional dresses waving at us. We then went to our cubicles to set up, flew, and then let the people view our setup. As you can see in the picture, there was the usual crowd control. Notice the stick in the policeman’s hand (1st photo below). He starts to holler and swings the stick, and they move on… Again, this is a fairly common method of crowd control at public events in India, and highly effective.

On the way back to the hotel for the evening we stopped at Tirupati Natural Park for dinner. Spread over 540 acres, it is a dream come true for Sri Patel and his colleagues who took inhospitable barren ravenous land, harnessed water, leveled the ravines, and planted thousands of saplings to create an excellent tribute to environmental concern. By doing so, the water table actually rose from 60 feet to 150 feet in the area. Needless to say, they are the best farmers in the state and the best environmentalists at a national level.

January 13th

Again right on time we leave the hotel at 6:50 am, to travel to Yiramgamrajkod, heading west to a city called Surendranagar, to go through the same format as yesterday. Lunch both days was a short walk to a building where we were served. At both times the security was so good we had no fears of losing our kites, everything was well looked after.

January 14th

The main day of celebration all over India is the day the sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere. The start of the planting season, new life, regeneration. Throughout India it is called different names, but in Gujarat it is called Uttarayan. One of the most enjoyable and spontaneous festivals in Gujarat. The flat roof-tops are covered with fliers flying the fighter kites with glass coated line, manjha, and a free-for-all line cutting melee. Shouts of joy can be heard all over us as kites are set free to float gently to the waiting children on the ground or to come to rest in a tree.

In the morning we were invited to a local resident’s home to fly, and upon arriving I saw a number of police around, and upon entering the court yard we were scanned by them. I thought this to be strange until after about an hour of cutting and being cut, Honorable Chief Minister Mori enters to greet us. I had the pleasure of meeting him and relaying greetings from American and the North American Fighter Kite Association. I also presented him with one of our style fighters. It happened so fast that I have no idea whose kite I presented to him, but it was well constructed with red cellophane in the center and Orcon on the outer perimeter. A little later he took out a hand-painted fighter and returned the favor.

It was then off to lunch. Right after lunch we walked to the building in Ahmedabad. Upon arriving atop the roof which was a little smaller than a football field, we were greeted with music and a spread of goodies laid out for us. Oh my god, more food to eat, and this right after a big lunch! We ate, flew kites, and danced to the music.

I was talking to a gentleman about our style of kites and how we fly, when he stopped me, went and got the TV crew and asked me to start over for the TV audience. I showed them our style of kite and explained how we adapted their style of kite and flying to fit our style, and was putting my kite into the sky to be cut and released to the people of India in tribute for the introducing North America to the joys of fighter kites.

There was a lady on the other side of the equipment room that I told them I wanted to cut me. They went over and interviewed her for a while as I launched my kite. She was a very long ways out, so it took a while to get out to her, and because of my well tuned and highly maneuverable kite I cut 3 others on my way out to reach her kite. She was a greet flier and had a good kite, but I played hide and seek for just the pure joy of it, till I saw her make her attack. At that point I stopped, and she came in for the cut with the shouts of joy and jubilation from the crowd as she cut and released my kite to waiting hands below – and maybe a mile or more away.

January 15th

This was a day provided for us to use for shopping and local sight seeing. A gentleman I had met last year offered to pick me up in the morning and go to his house for breakfast and meet his family, and then he made himself at my disposal to take me shopping to places where I could get the most value for my money.

Now let me tell you that in the big cities, traffic is going in all directions at the same time. Trucks, buses, cars, motor rickshaws, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles, and pedestrian – weaving in and out of each other while looking out for the cows that roam freely through the city. At least in the bus you are protected. I say that because my worst fear came to life when Pradsnesh arrived in the morning. Yes you guessed it, a 90 CC motorcycle. If you are ever in India and want to truly experience India traffic – ride on the back of a motorcycle!

This evening at 11 pm, I leave to check in at the airport for my 3 am flight home. It had been a joyous time in Gujarat, and it is now time to say my goodbyes to those local fliers and residents I had met and become close with. A couple of things that return with me in my memory, the friendliness of the people who always have a smile on their face for you, and all the children I met, held, and fell of love with. A few pictures tell a thousand words.

To Mr. Joseph, head of planning for the kite festival, Sriram and Porvitran out tour guides and contacts for the kite festival, and Mr. Rora, all of whom took care of the travel arrangements, I want to say, from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU!!!! You made my trip a very enjoyable and informative one. To those kite fliers that have never been to India if you are asked to attend, by all means do not say no. You will bring back much more than you take. India is not a place that you can look at pictures and read about to truly know, it is a place you have to visit to fully experience and understand all its riches, culture, history, and people it has to offer.


Richard Hurd