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Tea Leaves

In difficult times, go fly a kite

Bali shows how a century-old tradition can help ease pandemic stress

Kites take to the sky at the Bali Kite Festival in 2015. (Photo by Julia Winterflood)

In the Australian winter, from June to August, low-pressure systems over the country's deserts send continental trade winds northwest to Indonesia. During these cooler, drier months, the sky over Bali is sprinkled with thousands of kites, flown from fields, beaches, rooftops and streets across the Indonesian island. It is known as musim layang-layang (kite season).

Table-length structures are gripped by passengers on motorcycles and utility trucks as they race to favorite flying spots. Cotton strings from ill-fated children's kites are left tangled in power lines. Sunsets are dotted with silhouettes of fish, birds, butterflies and gently rippling dragon tails, and the distinctive hum of the guwangan, a vibrating bow, is never far away.

Kite flying on the island is a century-old tradition, imbued with Balinese Hinduism. For the last 41 years, it has culminated in competitions as part of the Bali Kite Festival, cancelled this year because of COVID-19. The stars of the show -- which attracted around 100,000 attendees in 2019 -- are the traditional janggan (dragon-shaped) kites. Unlike the fighter kites of Central Asia and India, they do not attack.

The victorious banjar (hamlet) is the one which works together most harmoniously, whose kite is launched and landed most fluidly. It takes about two months to build a janggan, and teams cook and eat together throughout. The practice cultivates communal spirit, develops the interpersonal skills deemed necessary for living peacefully and productively in Balinese society, and sustains cultural conventions (though only for men; women generally don't make or fly traditional kites).

As events across the globe shift to online platforms, it seems fitting that the Balinese have adapted their much-loved activity to launch the world's first "virtual kite flying" competition. After the first season in late May -- which saw 125 celepuk (scops owl) kites flown from homes across the island and broadcast via Zoom -- the second was held on July 12. Teams have a maximum of six members and under new hygiene standards, masks must be worn.

Deck Sotto with a celepuk, or scops owl, kite. (Courtesy of Deck Sotto) 

The competition was initiated by Deck Sotto, a hospitality entrepreneur from Denpasar, and sponsors include the celebrated Balinese shoe designer Niluh Djelantik. Deck was four years old when he first held a kite string. Forty years later he has been named a "maestro layangan" (maestro of kites) and is on a mission to prove that Rare Angon, the Hindu god of winds and kites, lives on despite the pandemic.

Exclusive to Balinese Hinduism, Rare Angon is an incarnation of the better-known Hindu god Shiva, and is often depicted as a boy playing a flute to summon the wind, while astride or beside a buffalo. Rare in Balinese means boy or child, while angon means herdsman. A century ago in Bali, it was herdsmen who first flew kites while their livestock grazed in the fields. Rare Angon is now a moniker for kite enthusiasts; the tagline of the competition's first season was "Rare Angon vs. COVID-19."

"With the coming of the winds in the dry season," said Deck, "the kite becomes a part of agrarian life. It is believed the sound of the guwangan will help fertilize agricultural land." The youthful incarnation of this Hindu deity also represents the intoxicating joy of being involved in a beautiful activity, said I Made Sukadi, a cultural expert, in the 2014 documentary "Janggan: Harvesting Wind," directed by Indonesian filmmaker Erick Est and written by Ketut Yuliarsa.

For Deck, sending something created with loved ones into the sky provides the "ultimate happiness." He initiated the competition because he believes "the pandemic should not interrupt this important tradition and hobby," and to 'show the world that Balinese people can still be creative while adhering to health protocol," he said.

Bali's economy, which is 55% dependent on tourism, contracted by 1.14% in the first quarter of 2020, according to Indonesia's central bank, making it one of the country's most pandemic-affected regions. For that reason, said Deck, the competition is also intended to support Bali's creative economy.

"I ensured the competition would involve as many people in the creative economy as possible," he explained. "This competition can help our friends receive income during this difficult time." For the second season, Deck is collaborating with Balinese designer Dewi Aryani to include a virtual fashion show component.

It is not only Bali that can benefit from kite flying, said Deck. "Flying kites will influence our happiness, which can help our immune system and decrease stress," he said. "Celebrating traditions and adapting them to current conditions can give an emotional and financial boost to the community. I am certain there are many traditions around the world with this power. This virtual competition is becoming a part of Bali's history. Let's survive to create more history and have more stories to tell."

Julia Winterflood is a writer, editor and translator based in Indonesia.

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