India has a very ancient kite tradition. Most people believe that kites were first brought into India by the Chinese travelers, Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang but from there the kites have taken their own evolutionary route in India and today Indian kites are almost exclusively fighter kites. They are made of tissue paper and bamboo and almost all Indian kites have a very similar shape – a diamond shaped piece of tissue with a central spine and a single bow. The differences lie in the many patterns and colors used to make the paper sail. But the Indian kite is a superb flying machine, capable of responding to the flyers’ lightest touch, extremely maneuverable and perfectly suited to its function. The generic name for a kite in India is Patang. In Tamilnadu we call it as pattam.
Types of Indian kites
While the basic shape of the Indian kite remains largely unchanged from the diamond, there are subtle variations – and each has its fervent supporters.
Patang / Pattam– This is the most common Indian kite. The height/width ratio is generally 1:1.2. As in all Indian kites, the edges are reinforced by a thin thread along the circumference of the kite and the overlapping paper is glued back on to the sail. This is a tail-less kite. The tail is generally a small double triangular piece of tissue, pasted such that the bottom edge is flush with the level of the sail, with thin bamboo slivers along the outer edges for reinforcement.
Guddi – Almost as popular as the patang, this variation generally has a height/width ratio in reverse – 1.2 : 1. In other words, the kite is taller than it is wide. The tail in this kite is generally a small tassel of tissue paper.
Dedh Kanni – This is a little more uncommon and is generally used in lower winds – The kite is
significantly broader than the regular patang and the height/width ratio tends to be close to 1:1.5. It shares the triangular patch tail with its parent patang.
Tukkal – This shape is more akin to the Malaysian Wau than the patang and is almost never seen in Indian skies except at Kite Festivals. In Pakistan, though, it is still a popular design.
Twin double-bows make this a very “heavy” kite and not many people possess the skill to fly it. Besides, the time and energy required to make one make it a precious object, one wouldn’t like to lose by risking it in a kite battle.
While the single color fighter kite, made from a single sheet, remains the favorite for serious kite competitions, there are many colorful designs that are more popular among casual flyers and children. Simple geometric designs, stripes and circular or semi-circular designs in contrasting colors are quite common. At the other end you have the intricate decorative or “picture” kites made by Indian kite makers today.
The traditional Indian fighter kite flies on a two-point bridle. Cross holes are made at the top where the spine and the bow intersect. A second set of holes is made on either side of the spine at approximately two thirds of the length of the spine. One end of the bridling line is looped through the top holes and knotted tightly, effectively fixing the bow to the spine. The other end is looped through the bottom holes and knotted. You now have an inverted “V” shaped line tied to the kite at both ends. You then pinch the twin lines between your thumb and forefinger and draw the bottom bridle out along the spine until it reaches approximately 1-1.5 inches above the top tow point (knot). You then draw the top bridle down to the bottom knot or tow point and tie a knot that fixes the relative lengths of the top and bottom bridles, leaving a little loop at the top to Which you will attach the flying line. The top bridle needs to be shorter than the bottom to make the kite maneuverable. If the bridles are made almost equal in length, the kite will fly sluggishly and simply shake from side to side – a little like the Indian sideways head shake that foreigners seem to find so amusing! A little fine tuning might be necessary to get your kite to fly right: too much turn and a knot at the bottom might help to steady the kite. Too sluggish? Perhaps a knot in the top bridle might be the answer. If the kite tracks too much to one side, the solution is to either add some weight to the bow on the opposite side (either by sticking on a piece of putty or knotting a bunch of string to the bow) or to bend and flex the bow a little on the opposite side.... This is best left to more experienced kite flyers, or you might snap the thin bamboo bow! And splicing a broken bow is a whole different story.
Flying line – Sadda and Manjha
There are two kinds of flying line – the plain cotton line called Sadda and the glass coated cutting line called Manjha. Most flyers will use both: the Manjha, about 100 yards of it, at the front and then the Sadda - so that you don’t cut your hands during a pench or “tangle” as it is commonly called in the West. Manjha making is a traditional skill which is handed down over generations and families jealously guard their secret recipes for the manjha paste. The basic ingredients are powdered glass (crushed tube lights are supposedly the best!), some colour and a binding agent – generally a cooked paste of wheat or rice flour. To this each manjha maestro adds his own secret ingredients - and everybody claims that his manjha is the best! The cotton thread is strung in eight or ten strands between two poles and the manjha maker walks up and down the length with the paste in his hands, finely coating the threads at each pass until the desired effect is achieved. The thinner, or 6 ply thread manjha, is generally preferred for its suppleness over the thicker 10 ply which might be used in stronger winds.
How does an Indian kite fly ?
Despite its simplicity – two pieces of bamboo and a scrap of tissue paper, the Indian fighter kite is a sophisticated flying machine. A complex interaction of gravity, lift and drag – the same forces that control the flight of a giant 747 – determines the flight path of your kite. One of the most maneuverable kites in the world, the Indian fighter kite is considered a masterpiece of design the world over; form follows function and it is eminently suited to its purpose – to fight with other kites in the sky. Tie your flying line to the loop at the end of the bridle, a little bend in the spine, approximately one third of the way down, to create a dihedral and you’re ready to fly.
Experienced flyers can launch their own kites and have them high up in the sky in a matter of moments. Novices need a little help, or more accurately, a helper who will walk 20 – 30 feet downwind with the kite while the flyer gives out line. The helper holds the kite by its sides with the nose pointing up. The flyer signals he’s ready; the helper lets go; a little tug, and the kite is airborne. The technique involves getting your kite into the wind by pulling in the line and then letting it out as the kite catches the wind. The kite will move in the direction its nose is pointing. So, you let line out and the kite spins as it takes up the slack. You stop letting out line and a well-bridled, well-balanced kite will track straight up. To move the kite right or left or up or down you simply let out line to make the kite spin. When the nose is pointing in the direction you want the kite to move, either stop letting out line or pull it in and the kite should move in the desired direction. Once you’ve mastered the elementary flying skills you can look at learning the complexities of pench ladana or kite fighting.
The traditional Indian kite spool or charkhi is a tube created with split pieces of bamboo stuck into two wooden discs with protruding stick handles. You reel in line by putting one handle in the crook of your elbow and quickly rotating the spool by turning the other one between your thumb and fingers. To let out line you either hold the spool loosely by both handles and let the kite take up the line or you hold the spool by one handle and let the line roll out over the side of the opposite disc. Of course having a helper to do all this is so much better!
Kites in Ancient India
There are many stories related to kite flying in ancient India. The rulers or the nawabs of Lucknow used to fly their kites from their palace rooftops with a small purse of gold or silver attached – an incentive for the others to try cutting down the kite to retrieve the precious prize. Of course the nawabs were also famous for their love of money and hated to lose any, so they would have their own men out in the street to ensure that they got their kite back, with the purse intact, in case it was cut!
Sawai Ram Singh, the king of Jaipur, was also very fond of kites and commissioned a patang khana or kite factory in the 16th century to specially make kites for him. Unfortunately the fragile nature of Indian kites has prevented the survival of any of these old specimens today. We can only get a glimpse of them in the paintings of that time. There are some paintings from the 16th Century in the personal collection of H.H. Brigadier Bhawani Singh, erstwhile ruler of Jaipur, which show kites being flown in Jaipur during the visit of some Portugese padres to the court of Sawai Ram Singh.
There are references in ancient poetry to lovers sending notes to their beloved through kites and some paintings from the Mughal era reflect this dalliance. The Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur has a few exquisite wall paintings depicting kites being flown during a local celebration.
What is unique that kites were popular not only with the local populace, but also with the rich and the nobility and people in poor health were sometimes advised by their physicians to take up kite flying as a means to regaining their vitality.