Kite fight over Kathmandu

The monsoon has retreated, there is a fresh westerly afternoon breeze, the sky is blue, the mountains are out again. Nepal’s kite-flying season is here.

There was a time when the sky at Dasain was filled with colourful kites as almost every rooftop in Kathmandu Valley was flying kites. First it was movies on cable tv, then came mobile phones and the Internet, people were too distracted to fly kites anymore.

This year, though, because of the spread of Covid-19 in Kathmandu, families are confined to their homes and the kites are back. The roof terraces are once more filled with children, and even adults, conducting test flights for the Dasain jamboree.

In Kalimati, Sundar Man Manandhar, along with his father, brother and son run a small kite shop that has been in the family for generations. But business went down, as kite flying went out of vogue.

“We thought of shutting the shop for good, but it is surprising that this year probably because of the lockdown, there is new demand for kites, lattai reels and thread,” Manandhar says. “The business is back.”


History of kite-flying

Kites were invented 2,400 years ago, and came to China from Bali. They were used by the Chinese general Han Hsien in 170BC to measure distances and it was probably Marco Polo who took kite technology to Europe, just like he took Chinese noodles and called it pasta.

Marconi used a kite to lift an antenna for his first trans-Atlantic radio transmission from Newfoundland to Ireland. Benjamin Franklin made a static electricity experiment flying a kite during a thunderstorm. Avid kite flyers like the editor of this paper have flown kites at 5,800m at Makalu Base Camp in winds gusting up to 60 knots. (The kite survived because the air is so thin.)

Kites that fight

Whereas European and Chinese kites float lazily in the sky waving their long tails, in Nepal kite flying is a martial art. Here, a kite has to fight. The idea is to cut the enemy’s thread with your line. Which means the kite has to be able to flit in and out, be obedient and have a killer instinct.

The thread has to look threatening, with red majha armour so it can slice through the adversary’s string. It is the lattai that gives a kite the capacity to reel in or out, and here speed is of the essence. A user’s airmanship is determined by proficiency in the use of lattai, and whether it can steer the kite left, right or up and down. Can the kite climb for a deadly dive, can it ride the wind so that the line can be used like a khukri?

Since the idea is to down enemy kites, you need every advantage you can get. Strong home-made majha made of snail slime or starch and powdered glass helps. It is the glass that gives the thread its sharp edge, but unless the thread is pulled fast by the kite, it will not be able to slice the enemy’s line.

Once the adversary kite is cut and is adrift, it is mandatory for the flight crew to emit a blood-curdling scream, “Chaiiiiiiit”, and then let the triumphant kite perform elaborate victory rolls.

Every neighbourhood has its own Top Gun, the kite aces with dozens of kills daily in ruthless dogfights. Then there are the vanquished, drifting unguided in the breeze trailing long untethered strings.

Types of kites

Traditionally, Nepali kites were made of hand-made lokta paper. They were heavy and took a stiff breeze to get air borne, and are rare now. But once up, they behaved like lumbering bombers – unlike latter day ‘Lucknow’ kites which were made of lighter paper and are more maneuverable. Although they do not come from Lucknow anymore, these versatile and fast kites are the Spitfires of the air.

The skills of Kathmandu’s kite warriors are passed down from generation to generation. Kite cadets learn to gauge the breeze, its direction and velocity. The take-off is the trickiest part, the timing has to be just right as you let it go in a tumbling motion riding on a gust of wind. Tumbling (ghumaure) makes the kite reel out faster than a side-by-side (tiktike) motion.

Kite tricks

Here is a military secret: if you are engaging another kite in a dogfight, the idea is to use altitude to your advantage by reeling in. When the enemy kite is below you, dive and reel out when the lines meet. The velocity of the line and its friction is what cuts the other fellow’s string. So, don’t ever reel in after the strings have made contact. Even the most lethal majha may not save you.

The thing to remember is that reeling out makes the kite lose altitude, while reeling in makes it climb. But there is a caveat – reeling in while the kite is pointing down makes it dive. Similarly, pulling the lattai hard will make the kite zoom to whichever direction it is pointed at. An experienced pilot will pull while reeling in, to give extra traction.

The way a kite behaves in the sky indicates the experience of the 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 is apt to get stuck on a tree, the High Hoverer is deceptively calm but can turn into a ruthless falcon to dive suddenly and cut the enemy's umbilical before he can utter "gwankh" (the weight you add to a kite for lateral balance).

Aerodynamics of kites

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 air-foil, and its flight is defined by aerodynamics and Bernoulli's principle.

Unlike 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 build-up 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 equilibrium, 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 lazy kites, which 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. 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 out 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 your 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.

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.

Salil Subedi

Kite glossary

Majha: line armour

Mandali: stone on string used to prey on low-fliers

Kakaa: string at point where it is tied to kite

Phuin: show-off kite aerobatics

Tthini: launching kite by co-pilot

Lappa: stall

Hi-chait: cut kite

Gwankh: paperweight to give kite lateral balance

Ghumaurekite that tumbles when reeled out

Tiktike: sluggish side-by-side movement of kite

Chakchake: kite with attention deficit disorder

Tauke: kite with pattern on top quadrant

Babache: kite with bottom half of a different colour

Dariwal: kite with symmetrical pattern on bottom left and right

Dharke: kite with stripes

Puchhare: kite with tail

Read also:

Soaring and sparring, Nepali Times

Up, up and away, Nepali Times