Kite Runners of Varanasi, India

All heads are up and bodies totter from left to right, then backpedal, listless as their airborne kites, while they maneuver the invisible string, one hand feeding the other.

Backdropped by the Ganges and a whitewash of rustic buildings, swatches of colorful kites still rule the sky in the aftermath of Varanasi’s traditional festival. The ground, too, since the competition lies in kite cutting- or steering your kite string to tangle and sever another’s before they do the same to you. Kites are the theme here- meditating on telephone wires, orphaned in heaps on the ground, reclaimed in hands. It’s an Indian ‘Kite runner’ and I make a visor with my hands and, in unison with the city, I look up.

Following logic, lessons learned from The Kite Runner, and the tops of children’s heads, I climb 90 degree staircases from the Ghats along the Ganges to the gulleys behind them.

“How do I get up there?!” I yell to the invisible holder of a visible kite. He’s playing it safe, keeping a short leash, and fishing the kite downwind, the opposite direction from the wind and all of the other kids. This, I learn, is not really how you play.

A brightly smiling boy on his bicycle, one hand on a handlebar and one tucking a brilliantly yellow kite to his armpit, points to a set of stairs. I follow his finger up to the rooftops.

A view from above

Varanasi is famous for its rooftop dining because of their sweeping views of the Ganges. Every restaurant with the forethought to advertise does so by painting bricks along the riverbank. ‘Has Hotel and rooftop restaurant’, they’ll say, leading you through the labyrinth of streets with arrows. 

The half mile block between river and houses are all leveled low, so the view I have at the closest home to the water is not much different from the one six homes back has.

Which means my arrival to one rooftop, populated by six kite-flying children and a mummified sleeping figure (a woman, I later met) meant my arrival to this elevated neighborhood. The roof surfaces, sized in varying circumferences, are bountifully decorated by drying laundry and occupied by various attitudes of locals in repose: a woman crouched on her haunches, moving the food on her plate to her mouth by hand; another girl with a blue and orange sari, calling out to ask if I want henna; a grouping of women and children seated on stools, peeling potatoes.

In touristic cities like this one, Westerners are equated to money. The most bustling tourist areas are also the ones lined by beggars who gesture hunger by moving a persed hand from stomach to lips. Children with hair stiffened by dirt follow anyone holding a camera, asking ‘chocolate?’ ‘money?” or, the more veterened ones, ‘photo?’ which they will then stick out their palm and demand payment for.

On the roof, two boys immediately capitalize on my presence and ask for ten rupees to buy two kites.

The game

I aquiesse, interested to see how this game works. They come back, cut wire off a large, shared spool with their teeth. In concentrated stillness, the boys let their kites to the wind. The kites pull with an airy whoosh, extending further from their fliers than any other kite in the sky. They back pedal and jerk their hands, always moving themselves in an effort to keep their kite airborne.

Depending on the air pressure, there are different methods for cutting an opponent’s kite, but the most common seems to be either pulling the string hard and sawing the others, or releasing the spool quickly to slice anothers’. Knowing how to quickly escape a wind stream and let your kite go slack is a crucial tactic in not allowing tension for another flyer to easily cut your kite on contact.

Next to us, a much smaller boy with a runny nose and too many layers for the midday heat falls to the ground with a shriek when his string pulls back with no kite on the end. He was cut by the competition on the roof, and he’s so angry he comes with balled tantrum fists and plows into one of the flyers.

The whole thing looks a lot easier than it is, I learn when they ask me if I’d like to try. Without practiced movement and constantly threading of string from one hand to the other, the string goes limp and the kite begins plummeting. In my hands, it happens right away, and I am quickly intercepted by a 15 year old boy with jagged teeth who is the oldest among all of the others.

It’s not just other kite strings that can damn you, but telephone wires and higher rooftops, too. In 15 minutes, everyone is lifeless, save for the one girl tugging her kite string over the wall, as if she were fishing.

The power of the Ganges

You can’t smell it from here, but a few ghats down, there are bodies burning. The fires of Manikarnika Ghat have been lit for some 3,500 years of constant cremation. Hindus believe that being burned into the Ganges is the only way to break the cycle of life and death, avoid reincarnation, and achieve nirvana. ‘The Ganges’ comes from the goddess Ganga, who is a fair-skinned, sacred icon in Hinduism. The perception remains that the water of the Ganges has cleansing powers that release the soul, making the river the ideal place to die. Or to prepare for death.

Each morning, from predawn to well past noon, pilgrims and locals alike wade to their knees in the river, splashing water on their faces and pouring it down their backs to bathe. The blackness of the water is lit with vibrant saris and flames from fires on the shoreline built to warm shivering, cleansed bodies. Taking a bath in the holy river, Hindus believe, they are cleansing their soul of sin, which is a necessary step before they die (though it is done at all ages.)

In Varanasi, the holiest city in India, the rituals of morning bath and day long cremations, both in the same river, give the city a focal theme of life and death. There are heavy religious undertones to daily rituals of pujas in the morning and at night, and most devout Hindus want to die here. A travel agent who books my train ticket, for one.  Despite sanitation problems and environmental concerns of the river where, when poor Hindus can’t afford cremation prices, deceased bodies are simply dumped, “the heart want what it wants,” he tells me.

In some ways, kite flying, too, emulates the cycle of life and death in Varanasi. There is longevity in the kite string, handmade using glass and particles for fortitude, and eventually, there is death from battle or an accidental snag on another rooftop. There is reincarnation when a fallen kite is caught and used anew, a chance of second life that Hinduism is strongly rooted in, as their god Vishnu was reincarnated as an avatar ten times.

After I descend from the roof, I am more aware of all of the orphaned kites that have lost their battles. Their strings are everywhere down below, coiling around ankles like invisible fences. Stepping out of the hold of  kite string traps is a lot like getting toilet paper off your shoe, as it often sticks to the other. Looking down at all of the ruins is the best reminder to look up at the victors in the sky.

In the time before a kite is cut, it is the opposite of mortality, of air choked by incense and burning flesh. The kite flying is living itself.