Editor’s note: This colourful story about the history and culture of kite-flying around the world was first published on The Heritage Lab—a wonderful resource of stories on cultural heritage, art, museums and lots more. You can find other wonderful essays on art and culture over at their website.
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.
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 the 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!
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 equated the flight of a kite (patang) with the soaring heart of a lover in his work, Madhumalati. Other 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.
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.
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 centre 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 below (and in the GIF), you spot the double-bow Tukkal kite alongside the familiar diamond-shaped patang!
And here’s one from modern India—a colourful painting by MF Husain.
Kite Flying in Korea: an answer to a question on female leadership
The oldest surviving record about kite flying is found in the biography of 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.