In Bali, when the trade winds kick in, the weather changes. Each May, the wet season slows to a stop as strong, dry, clean winds blow in from the south. The skies clear, the rain disappears and the paddy fields turn parched and barren.
Look up, though, and the sky is teeming with life. Birds flit and swoop like dogfighting pilots beneath white fluffy clouds as tall clumps of bamboo whisper in the breeze. Despite this feeling of well-being, however, rice farmers know they have a lot of work to do. If they don't irrigate the land enough, their crops will suffer. And in Bali, farmers don't just irrigate: they invoke the spirits of the skies to help out.
"I started making and flying kites before I was 10," says Si Nyoman Adnyana, a respected village elder and local historian. "I'm 77 now, so that's a lot of kites," he laughs.
Si Nyoman is one of the founders of the annual Bali Kite Festival and competition, held at Pantai Padang Galak, Sanur, on the south side of the island, usually at the end of July. The event is, he says, much more than just a festival: it's a homage to the wind, the seasons, the Earth and the balance of nature that ensures a good harvest.
"It's not just about kite flying, although that is good in itself, it's about what the kites mean to us," he explains. "Kites in Bali are a very important part of the culture."
Most Balinese kites are black, red and white - either in stripes, patterns or checks. These colours represent Hindu deities and legend has it that the god Shiva loved flying kites.
Built to traditional designs, the kites are rigged with bamboo bows and strung with rattan strips that make a hypnotic humming, warbling noise as they fly. As the kites soar over the parched paddy fields, the faithful believe the "song" made by the two attached strips will bring harmony to the ground and make it fertile.
The 50,000 locals who flock to the festival every year reflect just how popular the tradition is.
"The kite-flying festival is a big thing for our banjar, or village community," says Kadek Suprapta, organiser for the black-clad Banjar Danginpeken team. "If somebody joins a banjar and then finds out they don't have a kite team, the chances are they will leave and join another. There's that much prestige that goes with kite flying."
These are not the kind of kites you might see flying from the hilltops of Clear Water Bay; these are monsters.
"It takes months to get one of the big kites ready," says Kadek. That's because they can each weigh up to 300kg and measure three to four metres wide and about 10 metres long. With a stunning 200-metre-long, two-metre-wide tail, the overall weight can top 400kg. It takes about 10 trained team members to carry one. These kites are so big that when a banjar transports one to the launch site, traffic stops. Admittedly, that could be due more to the 70 to 80 banjar members who are following the kite in procession, banging on gongs, waving banners and flags, and carrying smaller kites and offerings.
"Last year, we built a really big one, but it was too much," says Kadek. "It needed nearly 75 people to fly it."
Take the Danginpeken team, multiply it by hundreds, each with several kites, add a few tens of thousands of spectators and cram the lot into a one-square-kilometre windswept patch of rice paddies by the beach and you start to get some idea of the scale of the festival.
"It's a celebration as well as our offering to the gods and part of our Hindu beliefs," says Si Nyoman.
Each janggan (dragon-style) kite is adorned with a unique mask, often topped with a gold crown, that is blessed by a priest and given ritual offerings before it is allowed to take to the air. Every year the masks are fitted to new kites, helping to bring all-important balance.
"Balance is very important," says Kadek. "The kite builders should be happily married and be experienced enough to make the kite fly fast and well and make a good sound."
Danginpeken's kite designer, Made Lumbun, is 61 and uses the same design as his grandfather before him. He has built kites for 25 festivals and his banjar has won its class 15 times since 1956 - an impressive record.
"It's the mask. It brings us power," says Kadek. "The mask and the artistry of our kite is our tradition." That, and, of course, the teamwork of the flight crew.
Teams tend to consist of men between the ages of 14 and 27. They dress in signature T-shirts, match-ing udeng (headdresses) and aviator shades. Many wear cowboy-style "facekerchiefs", others full black balaclavas. A casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking these young men for street gangs were it not for the reverence they show their kite, the rest of the team and the mask.
"Some people might say they are aggressive, but they are not," says Kadek. "It's pride in the banjar they are showing."
Being part of the community is being part of the culture, the tribal belonging that drives the teams to build ever bigger, more impressive kites.
"I'm 22, and I've been in the Segara Manik team for about four years," says Ketut Tara, smoking clove cigarettes as we talk, the muscles in his sinewy arms flexing. He doesn't look the traditional type. He has a plug in his ear lobe, tattoos and a street-tough attitude. But, he emphasises, his loyalty to the banjar is what brings him to the kite team.
"We are not gangsters, but we have to be strong because we do this to win. But even if we don't win it's good, too. We are just happy to be here," he grins.
THE TENSION MOUNTS as team members stretch out their 400 metres of kite line across the dry rice paddies, weaving between other teams, over canals, between food stalls, past hundreds of spectators - even across the sea wall. The launchers gather like coiled springs under their kite, waiting for the signal from the team leader. It's not easy choosing the right time; there could be other kite lines in the way, a cross gust of wind - even somebody standing on the tail. The team's gamelan gong orchestra ups the beat to a frenzy, the commentator shouts encouragement and the kite is hurled into the air, often catching just a small breeze and falling sideways until the line stretches, snaps and hauls the huge cloth-and-bamboo structure into the sky. A great, ragged cheer goes up and the kite climbs majestically, the team whooping with joy.
The bamboo struts flex with the wind, changing shape and profile. The joints between struts are tied with natural cord, wrapped so that they can move with the wind. The hummers buzz loud and soft and the tails flap every which way as the men sweat and strain on the line to get more height than the next team. Occasionally, a kite will snag another's line and plunge to the ground, a highly dangerous turn of events. And with 1,200 kites flown over three days, some people do get hurt; it's part of the festival.
But it's an event that, in Kadek's words, is woven into the fabric of his people's culture: "When we gather at the banjar to make the kite, we talk, we work to-gether and we use our traditional skills and we know we belong."
The traditions and beliefs that go with the kites may run strong but they don't rule the team's life. As one member puts it: "I go to the temple every day to pray. But I also go to the nightclubs every weekend to have a good time."
The kite flyers of Bali, it seems, have mastered the art of balance and harmony. Here's to a good harvest.
Fights in flight
Balinese kites are judged, among other things, on appearance, adherence to traditional building techniques, ability to fly high and keep a tight line, stability, speed and the sound they make. The winner in each class is chosen by a committee of judges after a couple of days careful deliberation.
In contrast, kite flyers in countries such as Pakistan, Myanmar, Vietnam and India, and some parts of Thailand, have a much simpler way of choosing the winner: it's the kite that stays airborne the longest. In a tradition of "kite fighting", teams attempt to bring down the kites of competitors using methods such as lines coated in splintered glass. As the fliers make their kite swoop and dive, they attempt to saw through the lines of others in a cutthroat game of skill.
The tradition in the banjar is that making and flying kites is a men-only business. It is the job of women, however, to make the satab, tiny plaited flowers made of bamboo slivers that are tied to the kites. And it is only women who are allowed to prepare the offerings used by the priest when he blesses the kite at a temple, before it flies.
Kite and kaboodle
The Bali Kite Festival has three traditional classes and one modern class of kite. The traditional ones are the bebean (fish-shaped), pecukan (leafshaped) and janggan (dragon-shaped); the new class is kreasi, in which anything goes, from flying turtles to motorbikes to lions and even waitresses. All monster size, of course. The bebean are the most traditional, and go back hundreds of years; some are still used for fishing. Pecukan symbolise the positive and the negative, two points of a whole, how two opposite elements must work together - and are the hardest to fly. The grandest are the janggan, the most important in terms of religious belief. Each of these massive kites costs up to US$4,000 to build and is kitted out with a headdress or mask worth US$2,000 or more. Seeing 20 of these monsters filling the sky at once is an awesome sight.