Flying High!

Features Issue 143 Nov, 2013
Text by Ujeena Rana

Every autumn kites fill the clear blue skies over Kathmandu in an aerial show that the entire city engages in, as a custom and a sport, and a fight.

The time for the annual battle is here. The rains have stopped and the post-monsoon weather brings in just the kind of wind we need. The sky is clear and the weather just right to be outside, not too warm and with the right amount of nip in the air from time to time. The scene is set for Kathmandu’s annual kite-flying tradition before, during and even a little after Dashain. The time has come for kite fighters to stock up on kites which will help win them face after last year’s kite fights and to conquer new victories. In the older parts of Kathmandu city more than anywhere else - where the terraces are so close one can step out onto one house from another - we will once again hear jubilant cheers of victory upon cutting through an opponent’s line. Kite flyers will crowd rooftops, family and friends will come together and children will run through the narrow alleys below, their eyes to the sky as they chase a fallen kite as it drifts down – a symbol of one person’s flying skills outdoing another’s. In the country’s capital, people fly kites not just for the serenity of watching an extension of oneself in the clear blue autumn skies but to match skills, make clever decisions based on wind, kite and flyer and to cut the other person’s line and watch their kite fall,  in Kathmandu, people fly to fight.

Professor Nirmal Man Tuladhar, a man who is a bank of knowledge on kite flying in Nepal, has represented the country in many international kite flying competitions. He also says that kite flying in Nepal is solely for the purpose of competition; it is not a recreational activity even though it can be and look like one. “The Nepalese style of kite-flying is aggressive, and though the kites look simple, they are strategically designed for bringing down other kites. The technique is to bring in contact your rival’s string with your own and immediately reel out line at high speed,” says Professor Tuladhar, giving away the secret to Nepali kite-flying.

The competitive nature of kite-flying is a great match to its timing. It’s a ‘sport’ set to the fantastic backdrop of something as dramatic – Dashain, one of the world’s largest Hindu festivals, celebrated all over the country in various ways and capacities. Like Dashain, kite-flying too cuts through social and economic borders of Nepali society. So the sport signals not just competitiveness and sportsmanship but also festivity, goodness, vacation time and rest. Because the country closes down for ten days during Dashain, the entire family and not just the children participate in flying kites. From morning to early evening, the Kathmandu sky is speckled with kites of all colors. The kites add one more element of celebration to Dashain’s joyous mood. Something about it is pure and magical.

When my father was a kid growing up in Thamel some 47 years back, he used to make his own kites and line and buy spools. His friends and him would starting flying kites as soon as the monsoon ended. They hardly waited for Dashain. “Making the line was the hardest part,” he says, reminiscing of his childhood. Earlier, the kites could be seen floating in the sky as early as from Naag Panchami. “Because there weren’t many means of entertainment and sports at that time; so we flew kites when the sky was clear, the weather was fine, and we got prepared with our arms.” None of his daughters however share his passion and the old man has long divorced his love.

Artist Manish Lal Shrestha has a similar story to tell. “I was a big-time fan of flying kites as a child growing up in Patan,” he says. Mr Shrestha takes pride in the fact that he used to make good manja (thread/line/string). “I made the best manja in our neighborhood and no one dared cut my kites,” he says with a hint of nostalgia, adding “I used to break a light bulb and grind the glass into very fine powder using a rock. I’d then mix it with cooked sabudana and apply it on the manja.”

However, those producing their own ‘weapons’ were a handful. As a young kite enthusiast, the artist also made his own kites. “They were made of newspaper,” he says. All that is however deeply embedded in the past. Now he buys kites from the market like anyone esle. “This time my friends, my family and I are planning to celebrate the kite flying session at Mcube, in Chakupat, near Patan Dhoka. We have good open space there.”

Mr Shrestha’s five and a half year-old son Managya however, isn’t a big fan of flying kites like his father was at his age. “Children these days prefer indoor games,” he says, echoing an observation many other parents must have surely noticed. “Also, there is no open space to fly kites here in our neighborhood. But still, during Dashain we fly for a good time and to give continuity to our culture.”

Govinda Shrestha, 49, from Tyathi, has been making kites for as long as he can remember. “My maternal grandfather was a kite maker. I was his apprentice,” he says, as he laments the lack of any professional kite makers today. There used to be many but some got old and for others, their offspring denounced the profession, giving an end to this traditional art form. “There is not much profit either; its a seasonal business. When I was small, we would sell titaura at the shop during off-season.” Now along with kites, Mr Shrestha sells souvenirs to tourists for a livelihood. When he was demonstrating the kite making process for us, his son, a young man, kept a distance - distancing himself from his father’s work. “The number of kite flyers have also decreased exceedingly. People aren’t into kite flying much lately,” he says. My argument that because there are many shops, the customers might be scattered and not concentrated in one particular location, giving off the impression that the sport was losing popularity didn’t hold much water against his perception. “People just aren’t flying many kites these days,” he says, maintaining his statement.

Earlier, Ason in the old part of Kathmandu, was the only place where one could buy and sell kites and other things you needed for flying kites. Today, like any other good, you can get kites pretty much everywhere; the major centers however are Kalimati, Kuleshwor, and Ason in Kathmandu and a few shops near Mangal Bazaar in Patan.

Surya Silpakar, a traditional spool-maker, had a different story to tell. He says that the orders for a number of products related to kite-flying is increasing every year. Mr Silpakar is in his mid 40s and runs a small spool-making factory in Kalanki. “The spools are essentially made out of bamboo. We also use wood. Our spools are better and don’t get damaged by breaking easily compared to Indian ones. Nepali spools also support the competitive streak of kite fighters.” He has employed a couple of workers but shares that to take care of large orders, he needs as many as twelve staff members to meet the demand. Mr Silpakar has also invested in machinery to help with the business but accepts that profits aren’t high. “We aren’t running at loss though,” he says, adding quickly to his earlier comment.

Man is a dreamer. He wishes for the unattainable. He wants to prove naysayers wrong; that’s why he seeks for the impossible. He believes in himself; that’s why he can swim like a fish and fly like a bird. What has been done is all in the past; what interests man is what can be. That is the reason why man challenges himself time and again and sets unbelievable targets that eventually become a blessing to the whole of mankind. The invention of the kite traces the same route. The closest man could get to taste the freedom of flying, oblivious to mundane matters was perhaps to fly kites.
It has been brought to light that instead of being playthings, early kites were used for military purposes. Kites served a different purpose then. Historical records say they were large in size; some were powerful enough to carry men up in the air to observe enemy movements; others were used to scatter propaganda leaflets over hostile forces. It is believed that kite flying probably became a recreational activity from the time of the Tang dynasty in China, where the royals and aristocrats were addicted to it. Likewise in India, the Nawabs of Lucknow adopted it as a leisurely activity and a source of entertainment. This is why Indian kites are also popularly known as Lucknow kites. The latter are considered to be very swift and are a favorite amongst the Valley’s kite flyers. Afghanistan and Pakistan too have long histories of kite flying.

In his book ‘A History of China’s Science and Technology’, the famous British scientist Dr. Joseph Needham describes kites as a major scientific invention that spread to Europe from China. It could be said that the kite was the original inspiration for man to fly, and so is directly the forerunner of the aeroplane. At the National Aeronautics and Space Museum in Washington D.C., a plaque says: “The earliest aircrafts were the kites and missiles of China”.

As far as kite-flying in Nepal goes, no one really knows when and how we adopted kite flying culture and if it came from China or India. The fact of the matter is that both countries have a strong history associated with it. As to who and when this culture was first introduced in Nepal, that’s still a mystery. In his article ‘Two Views of Kiting in Nepal: Always Time for Kites’,  Stephen C. Lowe writes, “The history of kite-flying in Nepal, like so many other customs embraced there, invariably lies hidden in transcultural obscurity. The genealogy does lead, though, to neighboring India, where the tradition has also endured for countless centuries.”


Professor Tuladhar too has no definite answers to this. “I have tried to do some research on it but couldn’t find many reliable documents to prove much,” he says solemnly. “Nonetheless, a Buddhist scripture sheds some light on the matter. There was the Buddhist tradition of flying kites with drawings of the Five Transcendent Buddhas – Vairochana, Akshobhya, Amoghasiddhi, Amitabha and Ratnasambhava – on the full moon day of the kite flying season. These kites would be flown from Swayambhu hilltop on Kojarta Purnima at the end of Dasain. The legend tells the story of the primordial Buddha’s enlightenment and of the spread of Buddhism in Nepal. This special kite flying tradition sponsored by social organizations no longer exists,” says Professor Tuladhar.

The Nepalese don’t just fly kites as recreation and even if they do, they and their kites are met with others who love competing. If you want your kite to be flying high for a while without being cut off, the only way to go about it is to pull up your sleeves, get more aggressive and show them who is the better kite fighter by cutting their kites loose.

Fighter kites are kites used for the sport of kite fighting. Traditionally, most are small, unstable single line flat kites where line tension alone is used for control, and an abrasive line is used to cut down other kite lines. Tails are not attached to fighter kites so that agility and maneuverability are not compromised. A great deal of engineering comes to play in the design of these kites. The skin of this kite is made from thin, lightweight paper and the spars are usually made from flexible, lightweight wood, usually bamboo.

Nepali kites on the other hand are made of lokta paper. Because lokta is expensive, the lokta-paper kite too is quite pricey compared to its Indian and Chinese counterparts. Indian kites cost between Rs.2 to Rs.30, whereas Nepalese kites start at Rs.10, going up to Rs.100. “The lokta paper has more weight, so the maneuvering is easy,” says Mr Shrestha. Most people prefer cheap products and so the demand for Nepali kites is declining compared to their imported counterparts. “Not long ago my family and I used to burn the midnight oil to make kites. We had sleepless nights because we had to meet the order or else kite fighters wouldn’t get to fly kites. Now the situation is that Indian kites have already arrived for this year’s Dashain while I am still waiting for the orders of the Nepali ones,” says Mr Shrestha, who supplies Indian and Nepali kites, and spools to retailers.

Lesser kites fly in Kathmandu’s skies today but as a tradition, most neighborhoods  still have people who find time to take up a kite to the roof and engage in a sport that is both individual and communal. Like any other tradition, kite flying too has had its ups and downs. Computer games and access to addictive technology like the Internet and TV has translated into more youngsters spending more time indoors than out. 

Also, consider the architecture and design of the city today – more tall buildings, houses crammed into already tight spaces and unmanageable power lines that cut across our view of the sky. No wonder it’s a common sight to see kites entangled in power lines, trees, and building windows. “Before, there weren’t high-rise buildings like today. Kathmandu wasn’t a concrete jungle,” says Mr Shrestha.

But there are silver linings. As with every trend, there are saturation points and increasing numbers of people are trying to connect to old traditions,  from festivals and rituals to activities like kite flying that were designed so that neighbors and members of the community would interact with each other, hopefully giving rise to social harmony.

The hospitality sector has caught on to this idea too. Nagarkot’s Club Himalaya, an upscale resort organizes the Changa Chait event each year. For a traditional sport said to be on its way out, here at least the sport is finding a lot of takers – although the approach is both new and necessary. The participation is mostly from Kathmandu’s corporate crowd, who look to it as not a tradition sport but a sport that helps team building. Large numbers of organizations and also individuals in their ways, host gatherings during which the competitive streak of kite fighters is demonstrated pretty well. As long as the fun and the joy is alive, kite-flying should safely have a place in modern Nepali culture.

You shouted
Ran I down the stairs
Passed the corridor
Through the alley
Crossed the neighborhood
Dashed passersby
Ran, ran, ran I
With flushed red cheeks

Fell on the mud
Dirtied my new white shirt
Tick rock tick tock
Time was running fast
But I outran the other kids
And reached there first

There it was!
Dangling from the top of a tall tree
I climbed like a madman
Got bruised
Met little, brown ants halfway
Got bitten by them
Wiped the sweat off my palms on my grey cotton shorts
Stretched my small hand
And collected what was rightfully yours
The kite

Kite flying has been in practice in Nepal since time immemorial. Professor Tuladhar mentions the following myths that the valley people have long been associating with the kite flying culture:
Kite flying sends messages to Indra, the god of rains, requesting him to stop rains as the rice fields have enough water.
This pastime of kite flying brings prosperity to the family.
Kite flying is a means of contacting and honoring dead ancestors.
Kite flying is a means of guiding recently released souls to heaven.