lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Friday, September 15, 2006

Go fly a kite!

I never thought much about kite flying. Of course, we flew kites. A cousin of mine used to construct elaborate box kites and our maid's son was better at getting kites aloft and we flew kites together. But I can't remember, for the life of me, if there is a kite-flying season in Madras.

I never knew there was a season for kite flying, really. There is one such in Bengal. I remember the first time I encountered the stalls and pavement vendors selling kites. It seemed to be a ritual, a seasonal thing. Kalachand, our ancient retainer, bought a few kites for my young son and me.

Kalachand was an expert when it came to flying the tail-less diamond shaped kites that are popular here. When I couldn't manage to get mine aloft, after many tries, he condescended to attach a tail to my kites. Somehow, I never got the hang of flying a kite that didn't have a tail. With a tail, though, it was different. I could make my kites swoop and dip, touch the clouds and chase the real kites that soar in the monsoon skies.

When we flew kites and tried to cut strings of others' kites in friendly rivalry and when Chikkoo or Tina from across the street trotted over with the cut kite, or when we struggled to launch our cousin's aerodynamically perfect on the drawing-board creations, it was all just childhood, pastimes and play.

It's different in Calcutta. I learnt that this kite flying was all about kicking off the silly season of festivals. Perhaps this flying of kites just after the monsoons is nothing more than a primitive thanksgiving for a good monsoon.

[I am omitting diacritical marks below, all right? You are warned.]

Visvakarma Puja is just the beginning of a round of merrymaking and the mayhem of festivals. They are not big on the elephant god here in Bengal, and they don't have Varalaksmi Vratam. They have a quaint thing called Rathyatra, and its attendant Ultarath, too. But it is the Visvakarma Puja that really puzzles me.

Visvakarma is the supreme architect. He built cities, constructed flying chariots and fashioned weapons for gods. He is a sculptor, master smith, master carpenter and craftsman. But he certainly isn't a deity.

He built Lanka, he built the city of Indraprastha for the Pandavas, he made weapons for the gods. He constructed the three flying cities for the three asuras, Vidyunmali, Kamalasksa and Tarakaksa, and then he made the earth a chariot so Siva could destroy them. He turned his son-in-law the sun on his lathe to reduce his brilliance, and used the detritus to make a discus for Visnu.

You can find out about Visvakarma here. But let me warn you, these are badly written. Worse, they are full of errors.

I had an entertaining half-hour when I consulted my trusty Vettam Mani. Puranic Encyclopaedia is a wonderful book for these things.

Mani cites references from Visnu Purana, Devi Bhagavata and a long rambling tale about Visvakarma's daughter Citrangada, and his amorous adventures with Ghrtaci from Vamana Purana. He also mentions references from Mahabharata, and Valmiki Ramayana, Agni Purana, and Uttara Ramayana.

Visvakarma is the son of Prabhasa, the eighth Vasu, and he is also a prajapati, says Mani blandly.

I had to consult my ancient Purvagaadhaalahari to discover that there are two Visvakarmas mentioned in Puranas. Compiled by Vemuri Srinivasa Rao, this was published in 1952, and is out of print and unknown today. But it is a gem of a reference book.

I learnt that Visvakarma is a prajapati, and he is different from the architect of the gods. Rao cites Bhagavata for the prajapati reference, and Brahma Vaivasatva Purana for a sanitised recounting of the romance with Ghrtaci. The offspring of the union are artisans, carpenters and smiths, sculptors and builders.

Visvakarma isn't a god, at all.

He is big in Bengal, though. All those who work with gadgets worship him on the Puja day. Mechanics, drivers and technicians all stop to consider him that day. One can see cars, worshipped and propitiated, sporting garlands and streaks of vermilion and sandalwood on the day. One can see air-conditioners and elevators, all sorts of equipment all bearing marks of worship.

In the south, we do this on Ayudha Puja, so let's not sneer.

One might laugh, but it makes sense to overhaul your machinery, whether it is a car or a computer. If one has to set aside a day for care and nurture of one's tools of trade, it might as well be dedicated to Visvakarma, the master craftsman.

But I wish I knew why he is depicted with a kite in his hand, though. Why is he invoked and worshipped by flying kites? Neither Mani nor Rao could enlighten me about this custom, nor could the Internet. True, they all tell me Visvakarma built flying chariots, but they are strangely silent about the kite. Ah, it must be a Bong thing.

Never mind. I'll just go and fly a kite now, shall I?



Anonymous Rajesh said...

If you can't get your kites aloft, you need to adjust the lengths Lali. A lot depends on exact placement of the strings. Tinker with that and you can do it. I can teach you to fly kites without tails, if you are still into kite flying. :-)

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Non Sequitur Man said...

Who is Vettam Mani? He is seriously under-informed. The architect of mansions of gods is Sqauronthehypotenus.

8:17 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

This is news. Purvgaadhaalahari is unavalable? Us old fogies can snigger, right? Or are you going to take umbrage again?

But Lali, you were definitely consulting more books than you cited. The mind boggles.

9:26 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- Thanks for the offer. I don't fly kites these days. It is much too much silliness for a mature lady to fly kites. I wish somebody gave me lessons in aerodynamics when I was into flying kites though.

NSM- Much obliged for the input. Thanks for sharing.

Ash- No, I am not going to take umbrage. I am a confirmed old fogey, after all. But yeah, you can't find that book for love or money now. It is a treasure.

10:54 pm  
Blogger neha vish said...

Hhmm Kites.

I always think of spring in Delhi when it comes to kites. When I was growing up, it marked the rituals of spring. The other thing it marked (somewhat like a dog marking its territory) was Independence Day.

But now you have me a little curious. Perhaps it can be tossed as a minor intellectual challege to those oldies back home.

The other thing I think of is the infamous emotional wanderment - the notion of a kati patang. Ha!

3:02 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Neha- Damn, I forgot the kati patang angle. And flying kites on Marina beach. Old age is definitely creeping on me. :-)

2:39 pm  
Blogger Siva Sivaaa said...

Kites. I don't know how to fly, leave alone making one. Folks have tried in vain explaining it is no rocket science. I still refuse whatsoever.

Yes!! Its fun to watch the flying kites at the Marina. Oh please. Don't talk about Marina. I will accuse you for making me feel home sick :P

3:26 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Why should I be homesick alone? I shall inflict my nostalgia on others. So there.

I don't know how to make a kite either. My cousin was the genius. But boy, can I fly them!

5:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dont sneer at kite flying, Matilda. Its serious business, where I come from. But the passion is less now. Its hard to get the kids away from their computers and the simulated games they play to feel the thrill of the real battle in the skies.

9:35 pm  
Anonymous Prophet of Doom said...

@ Missus Em:

It is much too much silliness for a mature lady to fly kites .... Just wondering ... What are your definitions of silliness and maturity ?

1:48 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anon- I wasn't sneering, cobber. Honest, I wasn't. But yeah, kids these days are so sedentary. I tell you...

Ram- There you have me. There is something wonky with the image of a forty-niner flying a kite, surely?

9:44 am  

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