Last Tuesday, Feb. 5, mainly in Punjab, India, five million Hindu pilgrims and devotees gathered together to honor their goddess of knowledge, music, art, science, and technology, Maa Suraswati, in a festival of kites on what is annually called Vasant Panchami Day.
Vasant Panchami, otherwise known as the Basant Festival of Kites, is an annual holiday in the Hindu culture devoted to worshipping Maa Saraswati in order to please her, hoping that she may grant them knowledge and enlightenment and rid them of tiredness and ignorance. The festival is always held on the fifth day of the Hindu lunar month of Magha (late January or early February) marking the start of spring. Panchami refers to the fifth tithi, or lunar day, in the lunar month. Astrologers believe this day also marks Abujha, the day that starts off the rest of the year to good work.
As the tradition goes, during this festival, young children are taught to write their first words, ultimately initiating them into education under the blessing of Saraswati. This ceremonious tradition is known as Akshar-Abhyasam or Vidya-Arambham/Praasana. It is during this ritual that schools arrange morning pujas to seek blessings from the goddess.
At this time, children are dressed in yellow to mirror the color of Saraswati’s dress. In fact, the color yellow is a common theme among children and adults on this occasion, as it is the color that reminds everyone of their goddess: devotees celebrate in yellow garments, worship in yellow dresses, don yellow turbans, and eat sweet yellow saffron rice and yellow treats throughout the day.
While this day marks the one day of the year on which a large amount of Hindu weddings take place, many who make the pilgrimage to this celebration also do so to take part in what is known as the holy dip: a time at which one immerses himself in the water of a holy river and comes back up to the supportive cheers of family and loved ones. Devotees believe this submersion purifies their souls of past sins and makes way for a new beginning.
Amid all these festival traditions, however, perhaps the most renowned and much anticipated event of Vasant Panchami is the Festival of Kites, where children and their families fly colorful and elaborately designed kites in the air all at once. These kites can be made to look like animals, sea creatures, celebrities, political party symbols, and sometimes even custom designs with the name of a special person emblazoned on the bottom, visible to those on the ground when the kite flies up.
Often the festival becomes a contest of whose kite can stay up in the air the longest, and each kite is manned by two people: one to dheel, or release the thread, and another to khench, or tug the thread in such a way that it cuts the thread of other kites. The contest ends with one victor—whomever’s kite is still flying at the end of the day—and from that point many participants look forward to the next year’s festival to try their hand at kite battling once again.
This popular game, as well as the rest of the festivities that make up Vasant Panchami, serve as a floor that brings Hindu families and friends of all ages together for a time of community and fellowship. Vasant Panchami is a time for people of faith to join hands and worship the deity they believe brings them wisdom and the arts, and to enjoy what other simple gifts life has to offer them—love, laughter, fresh air, and a good game of kites.