From being used in military operations in the 169th BC in China, to being a stress-busters for the Mughals in India, the humble kite has come a long way … literally

Did you know that cooked and mashed rice is mixed with powdered glass to make the thread of the kite -- popularly knows as manjha? Did you know that the earliest evidence of Indian kite flying can be seen in Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th century?

Harsh Pathak
| Updated: February 11th, 2020

When the wind is against you, like a kite, have your chord of faith rooted and you would fly highest ever 

The history of kite or Patang is approximately more than 2,000 years old. China is considered as the place of its origin; more precisely the Shandon province in the East China is known as the ‘home of kite’. As per the legend, Chinese farmers would to tie their hat using a thread to prevent it from flying and that’s the inspiration behind kites. Another story says kites were invented in China in the 5th-century BC. Chinese philosophers Mozi (also Mo Di, or Mo Ti) and Lu Ban (also Gongshu Ban, or Kungshu Phan) invented the kite using silk and bamboo sticks. Then around 550 AD papers were used to make kites. Kites are primarily used as signals and for communication in military operations. As per the Chinese history, in 169 BC, kite flying was in place under the Han dynasty. The Chinese general, Han Hsin, is said to have flown a kite flown above a besieged town to calculate the distance his army would have to tunnel to reach under the city wall. 

It is said that the traders and Buddhist monks helped kites to reach the rest of the world. Two monks, in particular, are considered to be responsible for bringing kites to India. The first is Fa-Hien, who travelled to India in the early 5th century in search of Buddhist texts. The second was Hiuen Tsang who arrived later, in the 7th century, and spent 17 years travelling and documenting India. One or both sowed the seeds for the great Indian kite flying tradition. The earliest evidence of Indian kite flying can be seen in Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th century. The paintings often show scenes of young men using kites to deliver love notes to their beloved. 

In Delhi, kite flying is a royal event. From Akbar to Bahadur Shah Zafar, many of the Mughal emperors used to fly kites on the banks of Yamuna, every time they became agitated or needed to think. 

In Awadh, the Nawabs from Lucknow used to take great interest in kites. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s kites were decorated with gold and silver fringes. Whoever brought the Nawab’s kite back was given Rs 5. In the time of Amjad Ali Shah, a paper kite named guddi was invented. In Wajid Ali Shah’s time, kites were made using one-and-a-half bows and back stick, which were quite similar to the kites of today. 

There were some experts during the same time as Mir Vilayat Ali, who was famous around the world for flying kites. At the commencement of the British regime, ‘kheench’ — the dragging and pulling of kites – became popular. In all this, Manjha the importance of Manjha went up when it came to flying kites; known as Patangbazi or Pench Ladana. 

These kites are typically flown in specific seasons or festivals. All flyers will use colourful manjha, coated with powdered glass, and try to cut down other kites, which usually drift away. Participants or bystanders often run after these kites and try to capture them – a practice known as running to get the kite. This is a common site in urban as well as rural areas. 

The Kite: Whatever may be the avatar of the kite, its basic elements have remained more or less the same. The kite’s body is usually made of special quality of very thin paper, foil, or packaging paper. It is essential that the kite paper be thin as it is more responsive to manoeuvring. The support framework on the kite is made from thin bamboo sticks. The Indian kite needs either the “saada” or “manjha”– a special type of string, and a wooden or plastic spindle or thread holder “firki,” or “chakri” to make it soar in the sky. 

The Kite thread (MANJHA) is the other important element. The quality of the thread ensures the airworthiness of a kite and also the manoeuvrability in the sky. The two types of threads used for kite flying are saadi and manjha. Saadi is a plain thread that is used to fly the kites. This is made of cotton. This could be plain white in colour or could come in colours like orange, blue, pink, green. The coloured cotton saadi is usually preferred by young boys and for only celebratory flying purpose. Manjha is a material that is used to coat the first portion of the kite flying line, just below the kite or even the entire line, which helps in the Indian kite fighting or “pench”. The manjha allows the kite to be cut off effortlessly from the sky. It is a paste made from sticky rice and powdered ground glass. Manjha threads are more expensive than the plain cotton thread. 

The name seems to be adopted from the process of manjana or rubbing of saadi using a paste. In India, Nepal and Pakistan, kites fly on abrasive string called manja (or manjha). In Brazil, similar string is called “cerol”, in Chile “hilo curado”, in Afghanistan “tar”, in Indonesia “gelasan”.

In India, where kite flying is synonymous with kite fighting, the kite is always flown with a cutting line. The use of manjha distinguishes the Indian kite string from the kite string of other countries. It also distinguishes the notion of kite flying from the rest of the world. Nowadays some kite flyers are using nylon thread to fly the kites. This is lighter in weight than the cotton thread and is available in a large number of colours. 

The making of a Manjha: Rice is cooked to a soft consistency and mashed into a fine paste. Powdered glass and coloured pigments in certain proportions are added to this to get a smooth coloured lump. The most popular colours for the manjha are vivid and brilliant — turquoise blue, vivid orange, dark green, royal blue, dark violet, dark green, lemony yellow. These colours look extremely attractive on the reel. The purpose of using bright colours in the manjha is to be able to identify one’s own kite line when a large number of kites are flying in the sky. 

Long lengths of cotton thread are tied between two or more wooden posts fixed into the ground, 20 to 30 feet apart. The coloured manjha paste is applied to this long length by a person who walks the distance back and forth along the thread applying a fine and even coat, on the four lines at a time, each line separated with his fingers. This hand technique is a well-practised art. 

Classification of Manjha: The manjha-application on the thread can be light, medium or heavy and accordingly it is classified. The light coating is called “bareek manjha”. A lightly coated line increases the manoeuvrability of a kite and offers less wind resistance. More than cutting other kites, flying is improved. This type of manjha is cheaper than the thick manjha. A heavily coated line can swiftly cut the opponent’s line, but it drags the kite down, offers more wind resistance and less manoeuvrability. 

Sometimes, manufacturers have secret formulas to create a special quality of manjha. They add items like milk cream or malai, isabgol, tej leaves, eggs, and several other unique elements in proportions that are closely guarded secrets, along with the rice paste and powdered glass. 

Precaution to avoid the danger of using Manjha: The manjha thread has to be handled with care while flying a kite. People sometimes wrap their fingers in Bandaid, or adhesive tape, to protect their fingers from the glass powder. Manjha thread can be dangerous to people standing on rooftops, or streets, to cyclists and people driving two-wheelers. During a kite fight, as the cut kite swoops down, the line when falling to the ground can cut the body parts of people coming in its way. There have been many incidents where the manjha thread has slit the throats of two-wheeler drivers. In fact, every year, during the festival of Makara Sankranti, people are warned to be careful of the kites lines. In some places, local authorities have banned the use of manjha which are commonly branded as Chinese Manjha for safety reasons. 

The importance of Manjha in the life of a kite is well-explained in the following line, which is true for life as well: “The moment kite becomes free, it falls down” 

Harsh Pathak is a lawyer by profession and an amateur connoisseur of natural, historical and cultural heritage of Delhi.

(Views are personal)