Yes! Kite fighting – not flying – is indeed a thing. It is an exciting sport to both participate in and spectate, but can also be dangerous.
The objective(s) of kite fighting varies from region to region. Generally, 2 or more kites are flown in the competition. Using kite line that is abrasive, or coated in abrasive material (like crushed glass), competitors try to cut down their opponents’ kite lines and bring the kite to the ground. The last person or team standing wins.
In other regions, kite fighters cut their opponent’s kite line, then capture the trailing line of the cut kite with their own kite line and secure their prize – the opponent’s kite. If the cut kite is not ‘captured’, the kite belongs to no one, and “kite runners” – usually young children – will pursue the kite to claim it as theirs. In Japan and Thailand, the objective of kite fighting is to knock your opponent’s kite down to the ground rather than to cut their kite line. In the United States, competitions are very different from these variations above; competitors will instead compete through a display of skills and “line touch” contests.
There are 2 common ways of ‘cutting’ another kite line with your own – release cutting or pull cutting:
- In release cutting, once lines are in contact, parties will let out their lines until one is cut.
- In pull cutting, when lines are in contact, the kite flier or pilot quickly pulls the line in towards themself to produce a sawing motion to cut through their opponent’s kite line.
Although kites themselves were invented 2,500 years ago in China, the sport of kite fighting is said to have first appeared in India. Kite flying takes place mainly during specific festivals such as the spring festival known as Basant (or Bassant in Pakistan). More recently, kite flying has become a popular activity on India’s Independent Day.
Kite fighting is popular in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, and some islands in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, sharp objects such as blades or shards of glass are attached to their kite tails rather than using glass-coated or abrasive kite lines.
What Does A Fighter Kite Look Like?
Every country has its own variation of the design for a fighter kite. However, there are a few features that are identical or similar across the various designs:
- The most prominent feature of a fighter kite is its kite line. As previously mentioned, such kite lines are usually made from abrasive materials, or they are coated with abrasives. The line is painted with glue and then coated with crushed glass. There are also manufacturers who specialize in this type of kite line, such is its popularity especially in India and Pakistan.
- Fighter kites are almost exclusively single-line kites that are flat in design. The single line makes the kite more reliant on the pilot’s skill with line tension to control it to dodge and cut other kite lines.
- Fighter kites were originally made from colourful paper and bamboo; while the traditionalists swear by these materials and continue to use traditional designs, carbon fiber and Orcon film kites are increasing in popularity.
The Indian fighter kite is called patang and it resembles the traditional diamond kite that we all know. The video above shows the patang in action – see how agile it is in the air!
In neighbouring Pakistan, there is a similar design called guda. There is also the chagg, which is larger than the typical patang and slightly resembles an Afghani fighter kite. As kite fighting is such a popular past-time in Pakistan, the country possibly has the most variations of fighter kite designs. In addition to the ones already mentioned earlier, Pakistan also has the do pana, the gum pana, the kashti, the gulair, the kupp, the salara, the suit, the shistru, and the teera.
In India and Pakistan, the tukkal or tuqal is also a popular fighter kite design. It has a distinct oval shape with a pointed leading edge at the top, and a semi-circle bottom. It is heavier and slower than the traditional patang but it is more likely to win a fight against the lighter and faster fighter kites.
Image of a tukkal courtesy of A Tribute To Fighters
This is an Afghani fighter kite. Note the curves on this beauty, along with the similar shape of its leading edge (top) to the Indian patang.
Afghani fighter kites are much bigger than most Indian kites; the wing span of an Afghani fighter kite is anywhere between 3.5 feet to 5 feet long, while most Indian fighter kites are between 1.5 to 2.5 feet from wingtip to wingtip.
From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban government in Afghanistan banned both kite flying and fighting, declaring it “un-Islamic”.
Image of an Afghani fighter kite courtesy of Afghanistan-Culture.com
In Brazil, the traditional pipa is the choice of fighter kite. Its frame is shaped like a pentagon, while its kite sail (surface area of the kite) looks more like a rectangle with a triangle on top. Below is a video on how a pipa is made, which also shows you how it looks like.
Caribbean fighter kites, on the other hand, have a unique shape that looks like a hexagon that’s stretched one way. Caribbean fighter kites have sharp objects such as razor blades glass attached to their kite tails to cut down other kites either by cutting their lines or tearing through their sails.
Chilean fighter kites are known as volatin. They are usually square-sided, and are made from bamboo and light paper. The volatin is unique from other fighter kites in that it has 3 support threads – 2 at the leading edge, and 1 in the trailing edge/bottom – and are also strung along in the kite’s creases acting as part of its frame to provide stability and to cushion ‘attacks’ from other kites. Watch these kites in action below.
Chilean kite fighting includes the use of a large reel called carrete, along with wooden sticks. The reel stores the abrasive kite line, and the wooden sticks help to manipulate the carrete in turn. A skilled kite fighter who has mastered these rods will be less likely to ever touch the abrasive kite line in a match.
Japanese fighter kites, also known as the Nagasaki Hata (see picture on left) are similar in shape to the Indian patang. It is believed that the design was introduced by Dutch merchants and travellers.
While the standard ‘line-cutting’ style of kite fighting exists in Japan, they also have another style of competition where teams using very large kites force down other teams’ kites. Watch the exciting video of the Hamamatsu Kite Festival 2013 below:
Image courtesy of KiteMan.co.uk
However, you may be more familiar with the Rokkaku, a bowed 6-sided Japanese fighter kite. The word Rokkaku in Japanese means ‘six-sided’ or ‘hexagonal’, which perfectly describes this kite’s shape.
Traditionally, it is made with bamboo spars and washi paper. The structure is a vertically stretched hexagon with a four-point bridle. One bamboo spar runs from tip to toe, and there are two cross-spars.
Below is a video of an exciting Rokkaku kite fight.
Image from Mariana Ruiz
The traditional Korean fighter kite (above)is a rectangular kite known as the bangpae-yeon. Similar to the Japanese Rokkaku, it is shaped like a shield and is bowed. There are 2 things that make the bangpae-yeon unique:
- It has a hole in the center of its sail, and
- Its reel is vastly different from the standard reels that we have previously seen. Instead, it looks like an oversized eight-legged spindle with a long handle.
Other countries have their own versions of fighter kites as well! For example, Indonesia has the benang gelsan, the layangan Palembang, and the langayan aduan. In Thailand, you can find the Chula and pakpao, while Nepal has the lokta change. In Malaysia, you will find the wau bulan, or moon kite, named after its crescent-shaped tail.
Fighters kites in the United States are made from a wide range of designs and materials for “line touch” and display-of-skills competitions. The American Kitefliers Association has an annual national convention where such competitions are held.
What Are The Dangers Of Kite Fighting?
You may already be thinking: “Kite fighting sounds dangerous with glass-coated kite line, or knocking other people’s kites down!” Yes, kite fighting can be dangerous, and its dangers are documented below.
Kite-related road accidents usually happen for 2 reasons: falling kite lines or strings, and kites being a distraction.
Falling Kite Line/Strings
During a kite fighting competition, both the participants and spectators are at risk of injuries or even death. Anyone who comes in contact with the abrasive kite fighting line can get cut, suffer infections, or even die.
After a kite festival (whether it includes kite fighting or not), discarded kites and kite lines can be seen draped across buildings or structures such as lamp posts or traffic lights. This presents a hazard mainly to unsuspecting motorcyclists; when the kite lines catch motorcyclists across the throat, often killing them if not directly, then indirectly due to an accident waiting to happen. 2 children have also been killed in separate incidents while looking out through the sunroof of the cars they were in. (Source: BBC Article: India: Three die as kite string slits their throats)
In recent years, traditional kite fighting lines have evolved from cotton string coated with rice glue and glass to nylon or synthetic lines coated with metallic or chemical abrasive compounds. To prevent further deaths and injuries, countries such as India and Chile have implemented restrictions or bans on the use of or the manufacture of these deadly types of kite line
Other countries such as Brazil and India have mandated safety devices on motorcycles when riding during kite festivals, such as an antenna or an arch that sticks up in between the handlebars of a motorcycle.
In the video below, you can also see the arch device for motorcycles in action.
Kites Being a Distraction
Kite runners are typically younger children that chase kites once they have been cut down. The downed kites are often considered as prizes or trophies for the team or person that cut them down, or if they have not been claim, the children are allowed to take them.
However, as kite runners pursuit their prize, they are also often in danger of running onto roads or train tracks, or injuring themselves by tripping or running into other people or structures. It is dangerous to suddenly run out in front of a vehicle or a train without being aware of your surroundings.
Kite runners also run the risk of injury or death when they climb trees or buildings to retrieve kites that have landed there.
To prevent such accidents, kite flying and fighting festival organizers are urged to define a strict area of where the flight or fight is to occur. Safety gear should always be worn by participants, and if possible by the spectators as well. Safety officers should be alert and on-hand to assist should a situation arise.
The abrasive kite lines used in kite fighting are also deadly not just to humans, but also wildlife, particularly birds, as the lines (abrasive or not) can easily cut through muscle and bone. Stray animals have also been known to get trapped and injured on kite lines that have fallen closer to the ground.
In August 2016, at least 500 birds have been admitted to the Charity Birds Hospital in Delhi in 3 days. This high number is attributed to the kite flying festival held to celebrate India’s Independence Day on August 15. The hospital treats up to 8,000 birds every year. (Source: BBC)
Both fighter kite lines and standard kite lines that are left around after a festival can also cause many issues to both wildlife and the environment if not retrieved and disposed of with care. Lines (and kites) that have been caught in tall trees can remain there for long periods without breaking down. This, in turn, has a similar impact to trash lying around in public parks, degrading one’s experience. Lines can also entangle small wildlife such as birds; if these lines are left in the sea or ocean, they can end up strangling animals such as turtles, fish, or dolphins similar to typical how plastic can rings can trap and strangle them.
Kite fighting is definitely exciting for most people, but keep in mind that safety should be your number 1 priority even if you are simply spectating the sports in-person. If you are a participant in a kite fighting competition, always make sure to retrieve any and all kite line or kite parts that may have broken off your main kite after the competition, and to dispose of them with care. Have fun out there!