Pakistan’s Deadly Kite Flying Craze

Image by: Usman Ahmed

It might look like blossom floating in the wind, but it’s arguably the most dangerous – not to say most contentious – sport in the world. And not just for those taking part. As if Pakistan didn’t have enough troubles to cope with on the ground, kite flying in its Punjab province was deemed so treacherous it was banned there a few years back – spoiling the fun for those who enjoyed its annual high point, though probably saving a few lives.

Rooftop kite launch
Image by: Iffyrana

One reason the pastime is so perilous is that some participants use kite strings made of metal, or coated with glass or abrasive chemicals. The aim is to slice the lines of rivals, so as to bring down and capture their kites, with wagers often riding on the outcomes of the aerial duels. Unfortunately, however, the necks of bystanders and motorcyclists have tended to get in the way, resulting in horrific, sometimes fatal injuries from road crashes and cut throats. To reduce the risk, bike and scooter riders have taken to fixing arched rods to their vehicles as makeshift protection against the lethal illegal kite strings.

Protective arched bows on bikes
Image by: Surprisemarise

Made out of coloured paper and bamboo stick frames, the eye-catching appearance and skilled craftsmanship of the kites themselves belie the havoc they can create once given flight. Other yearly causes of casualties connected with this highly hazardous activity include people falling off buildings while kite flying, people electrocuting themselves when their kites get ensnared in power lines, and people getting hit by stray bullets from celebratory gunshots. That’s quite a few ways for people to get caught in a kite-astrophy.

Rooftop kite gathering
roof partyPhoto:
Image by: Rehan Fazal

Kite flying in Pakistan is a custom intrinsically tied up with the annual Basant festival, in which bright yellow colours are displayed to celebrate the coming of springtime. In the country’s cultural capital Lahore, Basant was fast becoming one of South Asia’s most popular attractions, drawing tens of thousands of visitors from all over the globe to witness and join in the kite flying spectacular. But even as its popularity heightened, the festival’s tragedies were dragging it down, and the kite flying picking up a reputation for all the wrong reasons.

Kite string vendors
street vendorsPhoto:
Image by: Rehan Fazal

Owing to rising public outcry over the kite-related death toll, in late 2005 a ban was imposed on the manufacture, sale and flying of kites. This led to mass protests by kite flying enthusiasts and people whose livelihoods hang on the kite trade, which in turn prompted the ban to be relaxed for several weeks. Despite a number of fatalities, the ban was again temporarily lifted for Basant in 2007 – but at a cost as eleven were killed and many more injured in all too familiar circumstances. Hundreds of people have been arrested for use of illegal kite lines or flying kites when prohibited to do so.

Kites at dusk
Image by: Rehan Fazal

If kite flying in Pakistan were not controversial enough already, religion is also entangled in the matter, with sections of the country’s Muslim majority objecting to Basant on grounds of its Hindu roots. Last year the festival was overshadowed by the tragic Lahore bombings, but with both pro- and anti-kite flying supporters ready to continue the kite fight, things look up in the air for 2009.

Kites for sale
kite shopPhoto:
Image by: Rehan Fazal

Today Basant remains unscheduled, the ban is in force, and only the occasional speck of a kite drifts across the Lahore skyline. Even so, with kite flying season about to take off again ready for spring, watch the horizon.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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