Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)
Original broadcast on NPR’s Only A Game.
In the Balinese summertime, when the easterly winds are blowing in from the sea, the sky above the island is dotted with small and large kites of all shapes and sizes. For the Balinese, kiting is both a sport and spiritual activity. Participants put their skills of kite making and kite flying to the test. Maria Bakkalapulo finds out more …
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TRANSCRIPT: (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds on-location.)
From June to August, when the winds are strong, the sky fills up with small and large kites of all colors. For the Balinese, kiting is a serious activity.
A half-an-hour drive away from Kuta – Bali’s tourist Mecca – traffic is brought to a halt as kites the size of barn doors are brought down busy roads for Bali’s the International Kite Competition. For 33 years, entire villages, or, have come out to compete. The truckloads of teams arrive, each accompanied by their own gamelan orchestras serving the role of cheerleaders, for the ultimate test of skills in kite construction and flying.Ranging in size from two to five meters, the designs are strictly categorized, in shapes symbolizing fish, dragons and turtles, derived from Hindu mythology. Those who take part must prepare months in advance, says Nyoman Adnayana, one of the founding members of the competition: “This need a long time,” Adnayana says. “Sometimes one month by hand, except the material, they use sewing machine sometimes. To cut the bamboo, they need the right day. When they start to cut the bamboo and the build the kite, wow, it is special.”
Every year, the festival grows, with attendances around the 10,000 mark, and so do the sizes of the kites, some with tails as long as 100 meters.
Ketut Winanta has been making winning kites for the past 5 years. “The wind is strong, good today,” he says. “My kite this year is a traditional fish kite. This one has already won many competitions. Now I am fixing it.”
I ask, ‘is it important to win?’ Ketut tells me, “It is very important. It is challenging to make a better and better kite. It makes me feel proud and I do win money sometimes.”
The measurements have to be precise to pass the judges scrutiny. I have my own system to make a winning kite. The bamboo frame is tensioned with fishing line. The wingspan should be half the length of the body. Along with sport, It is also very much about the Hindu faith and the Balinese’s deeply rooted connection to an agrarian lifestyle. Nyoman Adnayana tells us more while at a kite competition: “They believe, the Balinese, what we call Rareangon. Rareangon means the goddess of the light. The God of the kite. People fly the kite after the harvest day. After they cut the rice, they fly the kite. That mean the kite is not only what you see in the air. But also they thank the god to bring prosperity to the people.”
The Balinese also feel the kites have spirits, so a special range of fabric colors are used for their kites to symbolize the gods: with red for Brahma, the creator; white for Vishnu, the god that maintains and looks after the universe; and black for Shiva, the destroyer. Before the kite can be constructed, a priest is consulted to find the right day to cut the bamboo and the material to build the kite. Once the kite is ready to take the air, the banjar organizes a temple ceremony to bless the kite with offerings made to the gods to ensure a successful flight.
On the day of the competition, the village teams, of 20-40 men of all ages, work together to hoist the kite up and keep it under control. In contrast to the peaceful image you might think to associate with kite flying, the Balinese competition is a riot of color, music, frantic teamwork, and a large degree of physical strength. Younger and younger kite flyers are taking up the sport. I met up with 23-year-old Made, kite leader for the village of Keisman at a gamelan practice, many of them part of various kite flying competition. “We have around 250 people from our banjar join in the kite competition. Everyone joins, even kids and their parents. Around 30-40 people actually fly the one kite. We have three people holding the string of the kite, while the others release the kite into the air. We don’t learn how to do it, necessarily, It is instinctual.”
And so the judges sit from dawn until dusk, watching as categories of 10 – 15 kites fly in rounds. A commentator chants over the PA asking for a strong wind to come and help the kites dance in the wind. The spectators all look to the sky and over the intense gamelan music and the crowd cheering, you can hear the hummers of the kites vibrating in the wind. The sound to the Balinese means harmony, the kites singing for the gods pleasure. Kite flying here is more than a competition, it’s truly a national pastime. In Bali, people of all ages, from gas station attendants on busy roads to children playing in the rice fields, can find time to fly a kite.