As the monsoon rains subside, the sky turns deep blue again and the wind suddenly changes from east to west you can tell Kathmandu is ready once more for the annual kite-flying season. There are other things that go with kite flying: the fluttering quiver of a dive-bombing kite, the smell of ripening rice in the golden fields where the kites swoop, the collective victory cry of "chaaaaaait" from the rooftops.
And everyone has a kite-flying memory of childhood. Of a cousin who fell off a roof while backing out after a launch (luckily, he escaped with just bruises), epic kite battles in which a dozen kites with their lethal maajhaa strings fought for supremacy in the great Battle of Wotu in 1968, children chasing falling kites with long sticks and running across traffic with their eyes on the prize.
The big difference between Nepali and European kite flying is that here it is martial art. Nepalis don't just fly kites for the fun of it, they fly kites to fight other kites. The idea is to cut their line with your line. That is why you need a kite with manoeuvrability, obedience and a killer instinct. You need thread that looks threatening with a blood red colour and shards of glass glistening in the sun. And then the most important item: you need a lattai that has the capacity to reel in or reel out faster than the enemy. It is the lattai that also distinguishes the Nepali kiteflyer from Indian flyers.
We don't know whether kite-flying came to Kathmandu from the north or south, but either way ther eis no doubt that it has evolved its own distinctive Nepali characteristics. Kites seem to have been discovered in the land that discovered gunpoweder: China. First historical references date to 400 BC, but it appears that kites may have come to China from what is now Indonesia. Kites were used in 170 BC by the Chinese general Han Hsien to measure distances. Kites have reached enormous heights, and the world record is 30,000 ft. People have always been fascinated by the possibility of going up in a kite, and Marco Polo did it in the 13 century on return from China. But people-lifting kites didn't really catch on.
Marconi did use a kite to hoist an aerial for his trans-Atlantic radio transmission. Avid kite flyers like the editor of this paper have flown kites at 18,800 ft at Makalu Base Camp in winds gusting up to 60 knots. But because the air is thin, the kite survived.
In congested Katmandu, kite aficionados clamber up to their rooftop terraces to get their kites aloft and there is never a shortage of enemies to engage. The fights, when they do happen, are exciting even for spectators as the top guns swoop, climb and do their victory rolls in the ruthless dogfights overhead. And the vanquished, drifting unguided in the breeze trailing long strings.
These days people don't make their own line armour, called maajhaa. But some old timers still have the secret time-tested recipes for the strongest maajhaas reputedly made of a witch's brew of boiled slugs, gum all mixed with powdered glass made from crushed light bulbs. These have to be mixed carefully-you don't want a maajhaa that is so sharp that it cuts your own line inside the lattai.
Kite fighting with a lattai is an art that needs a lifetime of experience. True kite warriors first learn from their masters, then they gain experience and pass it down to the next generation. After getting a kite aloft you let it go in a tumbling motion riding on a gust of wind. Tumbling makes it reel out faster than a side-by-side (tiktike) motion. After the line has gone for a while and when the kite looks dangerous close to the trees, you stop the lattai abruptly, and the kite shoots straight up. The way a kite behaves in the sky gives an indication of the personality and dexterity of its pilot. You can tell that a tiktike is flown by a novice, a puchhare is probably a kid, the flashy Red Baron is a show-off who will sooner or later get himself shot down, the Darting Diver is probably flown by a dare-devil who will get stuck on a television antenna, the High Hoverer is a deceptively calm but ruthless falcon who will plunge suddenly and cut the enemy's umbilical before he can utter "gwankh" (the weight you add to a kite to balance it).
One thing you have to remember while kite fighting is to watch out for pirates with mandalis. You may be so busy concentrating on the dogfight at hand, that you don't notice a surface-to-air mandali dart out of a neighbourhood roof, snare your string and capture your kite (and your enemy's, too).
Choosing a kite is also an art. These days kites made of Nepali lokta paper are becoming extinct, people prefer the lighter and more maneuverable "Lucknow" kite flattened with a conch shell and with distinctive stripes. Lucknows are the Spitfires among kites, they have classic dog-fighting qualities, capable of sharp turns, diving attacks, a screeching sound in a dive, good line response and bright colours. Nepali kites, though, have their loyalists and you can still see some of them around.
A kite as a heavier-than-air object and logically should fall under the influence of gravity. But it doesn't. The reason is that it is an airfoil, and its flight is defined by aerodynamics and Bernoulli's principle. Unlike other airfoils like the wings of aeroplanes, sails, bird wings and parachutes, kites can alter or redirect the flow of air around it unevenly so as to create pressure differences. While putting the kite in the air, the angle of the kite diverts the flow of air unevenly over it. This causes the air passing over the kite to move faster than the air passing under. At this point, according to Bernoulli's Principle, the faster a current of air moves, the lower its pressure becomes. And, as any physics student will tell you, there is thus a high pressure buildup below the kite which gives it lift. Gravity tends to pull the kite down while the lift makes the kite float.
When the kite is in equlibrium, four forces-gravity, lift, resistance (drag) from the wind, and the tension of the kite line-cancel out. Drag tends to push the kite horizontally back while the kite line pulls the kite forward. This state keeps kite in steady position. There are some lato changa, or idle kites which only respond only when stronger force is applied through the line. This is caused by the low lift-to-drag ratio. If the drag is greater than the lift, the kite will not fly at all. On a keen breeze, a kite will be at equilibrium and easy to control. When the wind dies down, the kite stalls. But even here, quick lattai action can keep a kite aloft. But there is a penalty: you will have to sacrifice line length. Pulling at the string with a lattai raised above the head is the trademark Nepali way of flying a kite in light breeze.
There are various traditional ways to steer a kite (see diagram). To take the kite left, for example, wait for the kite to point left and give the lattai a yank pulling it on the right side of your body. Ditto if you want to go down or up. While reeling loose the lattai, the kite often rotates, and you have to be careful not to reel in while the nose is pointed down this could put it in an uncontrolled dive. Also remember to allow for delay for the kite to respond to youir command, and this
delay is always directly
proportional to the tension on the line. So, if your line is
tight the kite responds immediately, if it is sagging it is sluggish.
There are Nepali kite fliers who attend various international kite festivals every year. Nirmal Man Tuladhar, a linguist and editor of CNAS journal and Thailand-based Nepali writer Ramesh Shrestha returned last week from the Dieppe International Kite Festival in France (see box below).
Because of the congested urban space, the Nepali roof-top kite flyers are sometimes compelled to yank the lattai to coax their kite up. But field kite flyers have the advantage of a long runway for a kite's takeoff and get it higher after the launch for it to catch a passing breeze. "But there is one disadvantage when you jolt. Sometimes, this causes the knots to weaken resulting in the string to snap and the kite becomes chait," says Juju Kaji Maharjan. Juju owns a shop in Balaju that sells kites during Dasain. The famous brands of non-doctored white strings like the Eagle, Chain, Gun marks are still found in the Nepali market but they don't sell much. "Kids who buy kites these days have completely forgotten the art of making maajhaa . I remember when I was a kid, we used the ghyukumari (aloe vera), sabdana (starch), bulb glass dust and even mobicol as maajhaa," says Juju.
Maajhaa-making used to be a major expedition. Says Sankha Narayan Prajapati of Gonga Bu: "We skipped school to make maajhaa, it used to take us the whole day." These days, people don't have time and just buy ready-made threads. Also, the wide fields that were traditional kite-flying areas of the Valley have been overgrown, says Prajapati, pointing to the Gonga Bu bus Park where he used to fly kites as a boy.
The cost of kite in Kathmandu ranges from Rs 5-50. The lines cost Rs 40 for 1000m. Pre-armoured line from India costs Rs 7/metre to Rs 25/metre. The most popular kite shops are in Bhotahiti and Asan, and also Kalimati and Baneshwor.