Kite Flying : a cultural trend around the World!

A myriad of colourful kites fill the Indian sky to announce the arrival of Spring; kite flying gathers a frenzied momentum – whether it is the festival of Uttarayan or Independence Day, our kite-shaped country makes its love for the ancient sport very clear. 

Unlike clay seals and metal pots, kites are fragile objects and there is hardly any archaeological evidence that can determine their origin; historians however believe that kites were first flown in China (475 -221 BC). The earliest evidence appears in a written account of the time when General Han Xin (in employ of the first Han Dynasty Emperor, Liu Bang) flew a kite over the walls of a city he was attacking. He used the kite to estimate the distance to his enemy’s palace, and thus the length of the tunnel he must dig to invade.

This coup-by-kite marked the beginning of the Western Han Dynasty that would rule the Chinese empire for the next 200 years.

Kite-flying Festival, China. University of Bristol – Historical Photographs of China

In Greece, the first kite in Greece is believed to have appeared around 400 BC. In the South Sea Islands, people have been known to be using the kite since very early times for fishing purposes. They would attach bait to the tail of kite, together with a sort of net, to catch the fish. Amidst many myths and folklores around the world, it is impossible to arrive at one possible conclusion about the origin of kites!

Painting by M.F Husain

What we do know is, that kites made their way into life and cultural practices in the East through trade routes ( Korea, Japan, and India) fairly early on, and each region developed their own kite-style and festivals / occasions to fly them. In Europe, kite flying fostered scientific study and was largely a children’s game (though both World Wars witnessed the use of kites). 

Between the earth and sky, these simple paper kites waver with stories of craftsmanship and trade; technological advancement, culture and traditions that bind the world together. 

Kite Flying in India : of romance, spirituality and craftsmanship

In India, Kites make an appearance in early literature. The 13th century saint Namdev, alludes to Kites in his writings (the abhanga is also included in the Adi Granth) that speak of the virtue of focus. In the 16th century, the Sufi poet Shaikh Manjhan equalled the flight of a kite (patang) with the soaring heart of a lover in his work, MadhumalatiOther 16th-century Marathi poets such as Dasopant and Ekanatha, mention the kite in their works too and term it vavadi. Along with poets from Western India, written accounts of the kite also appear in Awadhi literature – in the Satsai of the Hindi poet Bihari, for example. 

Painting of Saint Kabir with Sant Namdev (2nd from right) from the National Museum New Delhi collection

However, there is little visual evidence of kite flying until before the Mughal period. The pleasurable activity of Kite-flying was instantly favoured by nobility (men and women alike), giving rise to a culture of kite-craftsmanship and artistic kites! In paintings, the kite was often linked with romance.
Scroll down to download a colouring sheet in bundi-style showing a couple (Radha-Krishna) engaged in kite-flying!

It is under the patronage of the Nawab of Awadh that kite flying became a sport (sometimes involving betting!) and Lucknow emerged as a famous center for Kite manufacturing

In 1835, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II invited all types of kite-makers to settle in Jaipur and gave them a market of their own. The king flew kites made of muslin cloth, with bells attached to them which would make a tinkling sound as they flew in the sky. In the painting above (and in the GIF), you spot the double-bow Tukkal kite alongside the familiar diamond-shaped patang!

Kite Flying in Korea was an answer to a question on female leadership

The oldest surviving record about kite flying is found in the biography of the General Kim Yu-sin (595-673) in the “Samguk Sagi” (History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145). The record details a rebellion that broke out in the later years of the reign of Queen Seondeok of the Silla Dynasty; “can a woman run the country?”

After a large shooting star appeared to have fallen from the sky – a bad omen – people and even the troops were skeptical about the Queen’s rule. The kite was flown by the General as part of a strategy to restore confidence in her reign. A flammable object, attached to the kite (much like sky lanterns today) was flown, to spread the story of a fallen star streaking across the sky – as a telling sign of the Queen’s long life and rule. 

Historically, kites in Korea were flown for military purposes. It is only in the 18th century that kite-flying became an entertaining sport for the masses under the reign of King Yeongjo, who promoted the activity.
In ancient documents and books, they were referred to as jiyeon, pungyeon, bangyeon or punggeum. 

Kite Flying in Japan became so popular that people started to shirk work! 

Flying Kites in Spring, 1866 by Kunichika (1835 – 1900)

Kites were first introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks who came from China in the Nara period (710-794 CE). The first written reference to Kites is in a 10th century dictionary of Chinese characters, Wamyo ruiju sho(circa 934) where they are referred to as “Kami Tobi” meaning paper hawk – suggesting that the first kites were bird shaped. However it was in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) that the popularity of Kites really soared in Japan when it became a sport for the masses to indulge in. They were used for practical purposes, and religious ceremonies; each region of Japan had a distinctive kite shape featuring folklore or had a symbolic meaning. 

a 19th century Tassel carved to represent a boy holding a Kite (Japan) | collection of the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad

It is customary in many parts of Japan for grandparents to present their grandchildren with kites on Hatsuzekku, a festival celebrating the health and prosperity of children.

In Europe, Kites encouraged scientific study! 

The Kite arrived in Europe sans its Asian myths and folklores.

Undoubtedly the best-known scientific experiment involving a kite is the story of Benjamin Franklin, who used a kite to study the electrical nature of lightning. Why any mention of a kite invokes a reference to Franklin, can be attributed to 19th century writers for who, the experiment had a strong appeal! After all, the story of Franklin “stealing lightning from the sky” bore an uncanny reference to the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the human race ! 

The Charvolant – a kite-drawn buggy

Franklin’s experiment was later used to develop weather-forecasting techniques using the kite. In 1825, George Pocock invented the “Charvolant,” a kite drawn carriage. The kite went on to inspire the Wright Brothers, and Alexander Graham Bell, contributing to the evolution of the airplane. 

The ancient kite flying tradition around the world continues to remain an important part of culture. 

Thousands of years after their invention, kites continue to capture the imagination of people and inspire innovation.

As a result of technology and availability of newer materials, kites today are stronger and much more durable and come in a variety of designs; they have also become vehicles for social-messaging and artistic expression. At global kite festivals, one can witness how kite making skills too, have evolved!

Well, now that you know all about Kites, we hope you’d enjoy flying one – or looting one (as seen in this GIF)!

To download our GIFs, head to our GIPHY channel!

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