Combat in the Sky: Changa & Changa Chait

Features Issue 47 Aug, 2010
Text by Ivan Sada / Photo: ECS Media

Except for a few countries around the world, Nepal is the only place where a person can witness or compete in a kite dogfight (a combat that needs wits, skills and enthusiasm) and live to tell the tale.

Suddenly, like a Spitfire darting from the clouds to intercept the enemy fighter planes, a kite swooped down towards the other competing kite and as their strings interlocked, the crowd held their breath. In seconds, the string of the latter broke, and it flew into oblivion and the crowd burst into applause. Except for a few countries around the world, Nepal is the only place where a person can witness or compete in a kite dogfight (a combat that needs wits, skills and enthusiasm) and live to tell the tale.

Kite flying in Nepal is seasonal and is associated with Dashain, which is celebrated during the bright lunar fortnight, ending on the day of the full moon, around late September or early October. The monsoon ends and the weather becomes pleasant and favorable for flying kites. There is a belief that flying kites are like sending messages to Indra – the god of rain, to remind him not to send rain anymore and that it brings prosperity to the flyer.

It is also believed to be a means to contact and honor ancestors of the living and also guiding recently released souls towards heaven. Kite flying season lasts for a month.

Legend has it that kite flying was not seasonal and that it invaded the space of the avian world. No bird was safe and the sky became an obstacle course that was booby trapped with invisible strings that had the strength of barbed wires. Birds ceased to fly due to cuts and lacerations suffered on encounters with kite strings. A bilateral hearing was arranged with the King to find an end to the problem. They reached an agreement and signed the Treaty of Kathmandu and it has been followed since time immemorial. Thus, when the monsoon ends and the afternoon westerly wind starts to blow, the kites of Kathmandu take to the air.

Prayer flags of the Buddhists adorn almost all hilltops in Nepal with the belief “if the request is nearer to heaven, the sooner it is heard.” Kites with drawings of five transcendent Buddhas – Vairochana, Akshobhaya, Amoghasiddhi, Amitabha and Ratnasambhava used to be flown from the Swoyambhu hilltop that told the story of the primordial Buddha’s enlightenment and of the spread of Buddhism in Nepal. Though this special kite flying tradition no longer exists, the ‘kite flying’ season is always looked forward to.

Kite flying in Nepal is different from those of other countries in South Asia and perhaps the world. We use a reel with spools on both ends and a smooth stick extends out from each end of the spools. Either end of the stick snuggles between the thumbs and index fingers. You reel in the string by patting the two spools clockwise. Kites are attached to the string of the reel and taken to a distance by an assistant. The kite manages to catch the breeze the moment it is thrown up in the air and the strings are pulled back. It gradually gains momentum and in coordination, the string is pulled and the kite soars in the sky.

The string to fly the kite is actually treated with sharp and abrasive substances called Manja. This paste enables your kite to wear out the string of the opponents as it acts like sandpaper when the kites are interlocked with each other. Each contestant or flyer has his own magic formula to make his/her string stronger. Powder of broken glass is popular and is sometimes cooked with ladyfingers, squash and substances that are sticky. The objective of every kite-flyer is to cut loose the strings of other kites and stay flying. The style adopted is aggressive to some extent but is very entertaining and rewarding at the end of a flying day.

For the past eighteen years, Nepal-Japan Friendship and Cultural Association under the auspices of the Embassy of Japan organized an annual kite flying competition during Dashain. The competition also showcased designer kites that reflected the Nepali cultural heritage, and Buddhist and Hindu pantheons. This annual event has been discontinued at present, but it encouraged the younger generation to make colorful designer kites and participate in the kite flying competition.

The Japanese Embassy also displayed their traditional kites for the first time in Nepal from 6th till 15th October 1998. It was led and managed by Masami Takauwa of the Japan Kite Association. A second exhibition was held from 8th till 17th February 2005, during which they displayed more than 200 different kites. The exhibition provided the people of Nepal with an opportunity to experience kite flying in a different perspective.

Although no international kite festivals have been organized in Nepal, a two member Nepali team consisting of Professor Nirmal Man Tuladhar, Executive Director for Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) and Kanchan Tuladhar participated in the 4th and 5th International Kite Festival held in Bangkok in 1994 and 1999. Prof. Tuladhar is an authority on the kite’s significance in our cultural heritage and recommends kite-flyers to read Mangale-ko Changa by Punya Singh Gautam and The Treaty of Kathmandu by Kanak Mani Dixit.

Nirmal Tuladhar and Ramesh Shrestha also participated in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dieppe International Kite Festival held in France in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002. Besides competing, they also organized workshops on making Nepali kites for the French School children.

In the domestic sector, Club Himalaya organized the first kite flying competition in Nagarkot in September 2003, and it was held on 6th, 13th   and 27th . In 2004, it was held on the 17th, 24th September and 8th October. The objective of the event was to promote the kite flying tradition in Nepal. This year they organized the same event, which was managed by Malta International with the theme “One Sky, One World – Fly for Peace” on 17th and 24th September. Visit Club Himalaya Windy Hills at Nagarkot on 8th October 2005, for the finals of the Changa Chait 2062 – our own Combat in the Sky.