When they banned kite flying

Observations on Pakistan

For centuries in Lahore, spring has meant kites. For one weekend in March, known as Basant, the air above Pakistan's cultural capital shivers with thousands of battling kites, turning on the breezes that mark the changing of the season.

This year, for the first time, Basant was banned.

The main reason, everyone agreed, was safety. The desire to peitch, or cut the strings of other kites, had led to the use of strings pasted with glass, laced with acid or reinforced with brake cables from bicycles. When these fell from the sky they short-circuited Lahore's chaotic electricity supply or hung unseen over poorly lit streets, ready to strangle motorcyclists.

But the ban was also a success for the city's religious leaders, who had threatened to march against the festival after Friday prayers. Basant, a secular event with Hindu roots, is characterised by excess. For the Lahori elite it is a weekend of drinking in havelis. For the fliers it is a chance to let off steam, dance and loose fireworks and bullets into the sky.

"Millions and millions of rupees are spent every year on Basant. What a nuisance! What a menace!" said Muhammed Abba Naqvi, a teacher at a Shia madrasa in the Model Town district. "Maybe at its inception Basant was not bad, but now it has drifted from Islam."

The result was uncertainty. Could the sky be policed? Parties were cancelled and then uncancelled. Rumours ran of a lifting of the ban. Kite-sellers closed their stores and traded from their homes. Anil, whose kite shop was called the Black Wrestler, moved across the street to a small courtyard. He insisted: "There's no way Basant is not happening; the wind is great."

On Saturday night, when the festival usually starts as a flurry of white kites lit by spotlights, there was a face-off. Police filled the narrow streets of the old city, while kite-fliers waited on the dark roofs above. Until midnight the sky remained dark blue and empty, but then the kites began to fly and the police gave chase, raising ladders against buildings and arresting more than 125 people.

It was the same on Sunday, the traditional climax of Basant. At noon the first kites went up and by 3pm the sky was splashed with colour, while music, horns and firecrackers rang out. From time to time the call would come across the roofs that the police were below. For Kamran, a 25-year-old kite-flier training to be an air steward, the danger of arrest added to the thrill. "You can say it is a sensation," he said. "It is like we are on a frontier, the kite frontier."