“♬Let’s go fly a kite
Up to the highest height!
Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring ♫”
This song from Disney’s Mary Poppins, to me, best describes what kite flying can feel like. If you’ve ever flown one, you know. But this euphoric piece of paper wasn’t always a sport. In fact, old records suggest that kites were developed for very serious reasons somewhere in China.
Here’s a story to prove it: In 200 BCE, a Chinese general was tasked with mounting an attack on a well-fortified city. The walls were too thick to breach. The general had a brilliant idea. He would get his army to tunnel under the wall and come out on the other side. But how would his soldiers know how far to dig? Well, the general flew a kite. After some seriously complex mathematical calculations, he knew just how thick the walls were. The next day, without warning, the army entered the city and it fell like a pack of cards.
Chinese kites in those days were rectangular and flat, and were used mostly for measuring distances and signalling during military operations. But soon kite flying started being used for much more frivolous and peaceful pursuits and became popular throughout Asia. But how did kites reach other parts of the world?
It was mostly through traders and Buddhist monks. Two monks in particular are considered responsible for bringing kites to India. The first is Fa-Hien, who travelled to India in the early 5th century in search of Buddhist texts. The second was Hiuen Tsang who arrived later, in the 7th century, and spent 17 years travelling and documenting India. One or both sowed the seeds for the great Indian kite flying tradition. The earliest evidence of Indian kite flying can be seen in Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th century. The paintings often show scenes of young men using kites to deliver love notes to their paramours.
Once in India, kites quickly evolved into the fighter kite, known commonly as “Patang”. A Patang is a diamond shaped kite, made of bamboo and tissue paper. Today, Kite flying is a popular sport in the Northern Indian states of Gujarat, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab. Kite flying festivals are held in these states every year. Hundreds of kites are flown from roof tops. Participants try to cut each other’s’ kite lines, employing various strategies and tactics.
The largest Kite flying event in India occurs in mid-January during the Indian spring festival of Makar Sankranti. Millions of people all over northern India, fly kites to celebrate the advent of longer days and thank the Sun God for ending the Winter Solstice. People from all over the world come to see a sky filled with kites in every shape, size and colour of the rainbow.
Historically in India, kites have also been used as a form of protest. In 1927, during India’s struggle for freedom, freedom fighters flew kites painted with the message ‘Simon, Go Back’ to protest against British rule in India. After independence, every year on 15th August, on India’s Independence Day, you can see people flying tricoloured kites as an expression of freedom. A universal sport that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of age, gender or social class, kite flying has indeed found a true home in India.
To hear other tales from history, join us on one of our walking tours.