Ancient Art of Kite Flying

The Hindu festival of Basant Panchami, also known as Vasanta, is observed on the first day of spring each year, celebrating the renewal of life following the winter months. One of the features of the festival is the ancient art of kite flying, and in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in Asia, the annual Kite Flying Festival has crossed the boundaries of religion to become a secular event enjoyed by all. Starting in mid-January, and continuing through to mid-February, the clear blue skies become dotted with high-flying kites in all shapes, sizes and colors. While the traditional way would be to hand-craft a kite from scratch, stores sell ready-made kites and various kite exhibitions in Bangladesh encourage this age-old form of entertainment enjoyed by kite-handlers and spectators alike.

It is generally accepted that kites were invented by the Chinese around 2,800 years ago, using products they readily had at hand – bamboo for the framework, covered in fine silk fabric and high-tensile strength silk as the flying line. Kite flying soon migrated into the rest of Asia, including Bangladesh, and later into the rest of the world, with innumerable variations being developed. Apart from being used for entertainment, kites have served many practical purposes including communications for military operations, measuring distances and testing the strength and direction of the wind.

As in previous years, in January 2012, the Bangladesh Kite Federation organized a National Kite Festival at Cox’s Bazar Laboni Beach Point. With a huge stretch of beach accommodating all the enthusiastic kite flyers and spectators, along with spectacular weather conditions and a range of festivities, the event was a great success. Old Dhaka has been a venue for annual kite flying festivals going back to the Mughal era of Bangladesh. While the occasion includes the Hindu festival of Poush Sankranti, it is really a cross cultural event enjoyed by all. Similar events take place throughout Bangladesh.

A controversial aspect of kite flying which takes place all year around is the sport of kite fighting. Two kites will enter into combat, with the losing kite being cut loose to drift away carried by the wind. To make the cutting of threads in flight possible, competitors produce an abrasive string called manja, where cotton threads are gummed, colored and coated with powdered glass and/or aluminum oxide and/or zirconia alumina – all of which have highly abrasive properties. A series of vigorous pulling and releasing of the flight threads results in cutting the opponent’s kite loose, with the kite still attached being the winner. This practice has been known to result in injury, and even death, as kite flyers engrossed in the fight become oblivious to their surroundings. Moreover, kite runners – spectators who try to retrieve the fallen kites – are also in danger of injury as they climb buildings, trees, and even electric pylons in their quest to retrieve the fallen kite.