Uttarayan has multiple meanings associated with it. While some of these come from inherent beliefs and traditions, others have emerged out of the values people have attached to the festival over time.
The traditional significance of Uttarayan is underlain with astrological, mythological and spiritual reasoning. Astrologically, the transit of the sun from the south towards the north signifies the beginning of a favourable time of year and is said to bring peace, health and hope to people’s lives; however, Uttarayan can also be linked to the onset of the harvest season. According to Hindu mythology, the festival marks the beginning of ‘daytime’ for the gods and is thus the time to take up important endeavours and celebrate auspicious events.
Meanings associated with the festival are based largely on individual and collective experiences of the festival. Most people today primarily associate Uttarayan with kite flying, reuniting with old friends, socialising and eating together. The overall significance of Uttarayan has become an amalgamation of traditional and contemporary values.
Walks through the Jamalpur kite market in the old city of Ahmedabad reveal that, much like its multiple meanings, the tangible representations and manifestations of Uttarayan are also varied. During the days preceding Uttarayan, the kite makers set up their seasonal workshops in the narrow lanes of the old city. Houses turn into workshops and thresholds into areas for displaying kites. Innermost and ‘in-between’ spaces within pols, or settlements, are adapted into spaces for stacking and storing kites. However, with the advent of small-scale kite markets and stalls in newer parts of the city, markets in the old city are found to be considerably less crowded than they were a few years ago.
Uttarayan can be associated with old city areas, especially because of the close-knit network of open spaces (mostly terraces and roofs) it provides for kite flying. The typical atmosphere on terraces on Uttarayan is lively, vibrant and full of chatter, laughter and music. The sky is dotted with colourful kites of varying shapes and sizes, and the air is pierced with cheering and booing as kite fliers from terraces almost involuntarily enter into friendly competitions to cut off each other’s manjha (kite threads). Add to these the music systems on each terrace, the sounds from which often overlap and create a sense of extreme but cheerful chaos.
Uttarayan celebrations in the newer parts of the city, especially western Ahmedabad, are, in contrast, more of a private affair, with the participation limited to individual families and their friends. With the population density lower in newer parts of Ahmedabad, terraces are more spread out and tend to remain isolated from one another. Most societies are gated communities, insulated from outsiders, but the spirit of the festival tends to remain unaffected.
Another setting for the celebration of Uttarayan in the contemporary urban realm is the International Kite Festival, a seven-day event that usually begins a week before the 14th of January. Kite flyers from different parts of the world are invited to participate and represent their state or country. Unlike the conventional kites, large kites in varying shapes and forms are flown at the festival, making the event a spectacle to watch. Although the festival uses Uttarayan as a driving concept, it is also intended to act as a platform for further promotion of destination and craft-based tourism in Gujarat in addition to being a place for public recreation.
Finding correlations between Uttarayan and its expressions at various stages of the festival through photo documentation illustrates that it is difficult to separate tangible and intangible cultural heritage and study either of the two in isolation. An integrated vision of both elements brings out a nuanced understanding of both.