Among the Malays of Kelantan the business of kite (wau or layanglayang) making and flying is taken very seriously and some of the world’s largest and most beautiful kites are made in that state. Indeed, so important is the art of kite making in Kelantan that an elaborate symbolism connects the kite to the human soul and to the operation of shamanism and magic. This is reflected in a well‑known tale, Dewa Muda, performed in the mak yong dance theatre.
There are many shapes in which Malay decorative kites are made. Well known types include the Moon Kite (Wau Bulan) which is perhaps the most popular and the most attractive. Others are the Bird Kite (Wau Burung), the Peacock Kite (Wau Merak) and the Cat Kite (Wau Kucing) of these kites are fairly large, reaching about seven feet from tip to tail and perhaps six feet across the wings. Smaller ones, for decorative uses have in recent years become fairly common. These are sometimes made of batik material.
The kite frame (rangka) is fashioned out of light and flexible bamboo. The outer skin is first removed and then the bamboo is pared into finer strips. These are in turn similarly scraped by means of a whitling knife. Each strip is then measured, cut according to size and tied into position by means of white thread. The strip which forms the vertical backbone of the kite must be stronger and thicker than those used for the wings.
When the frame has been completed, the wings are covered with layers two or three layers of paper. For the first layer plain coloured paper is used. It may or may not be transparent, and it covers the entire wingspan. The second layer is usually cut out to provide decorations. A third if used, serves to provide further decorative features to enhance the overall beauty of the kite. The traditional practice is to have patterns such as leafy clouds (awan larat), young bamboo shoots (pucuk rebung) or other floral designs. These usually emanate from the central spine to fill the rest of the space on the wings. Alternatively, space at the tips of the wings or in their centre close to the spine may be devoted to other decorative features such as birds or even the state logo.
Once the size of paper to be utilised is measured against the dimensions of the kite and cut to size in keeping with the shape of the kite frame, it is folded into two. The design selected is then drawn in pencil on its negative non‑glossy and usually white surface. The intricacy of the design may require a kite maker to spend several days completing it. The completed design is then cut out by means of a sharp knife and opened out. Thus unfolded it displays the symmetry of the pattern.
The cut out design is then pasted onto the base plain paper by means of home‑made rice paste. A basic two-colour pattern thus emerges, for the base colour is usually selected to contrast with the colour of paper on which the design is cut out. Further elaboration on the kite design is done by cutting out designs and pasting them over previous layers. As a matter of common practice, kites intended for flight or competitions are not given too many layers of paper for these would add to the overall weight and perhaps prove an impediment.
Many kite makers add trimmings in the form of a bird’s head with a long neck and a fringe (belalai) of coloured paper above the nose of the kite, in fact transforming the kite into a bird. Further such trimmings (jambul) may be added to the wings of the kite as well as to its tail.
Tradition, in recognition of the overt resemblance between kite and bird has, in fact, bestowed suitable designations to the different parts of a kite, which thus has a head (kepala), a waist (pinggang), wings (sayap) and a base (punggong).Optionally, a kite maker may add to his kite a bow (busul), to which is affixed a string or a fine strip of bamboo. This is attached horizontally on the neck of the kite extending on both sides of the central spine.
Necessary adjustments are made so that the bow, whose span is shorter than that of the wings, does not affect the balance of the kite. The busul makes a pleasant humming sound as the kite is suspended in the air and folk belief maintains that so long as the humming continues no evil spirit will venture abroad. This tale thus further adds to the magic that surrounds the Malay kite.
A wau, once it is made ready for flight, is handled by two men, one who helps launch it, while holding it against the wind, and the other who actually handles the kite, manipulating it by means of the string. string. Once launched a large wau may rise to an initial height of a hundred or more feet before being gradually taken to greater heights by its handler. Once steady the kite may be left flying without any manual help, its the string tied to the branch of a tree. Kites may be left in the sky all night , the sound of their busul being heard all night long. In the nights silence. Landing the kite down on the ground also calls for some skill.
During the kite flying season kites are flown from about three o’clock in the afternoon until darkness sets in. Competitions, in several different categories– taking into account the height to which the kites flown, the skill of the kite handlers, the quality and length of the musical hum the kites produce or for the ornamentation of the kites — may be arranged between nieghbouring villages or districts. The criteria for the various styles of competition and the rules for the competitions are well established. Where the competition involves the judging of the height to which a kite is flown, it is a requirements that the participating teams use kites be of the same type, wau bulan for instance. In competitions involving humming, the kite style is more flexible, but a specific minimum length of time is fixed for the humming to be heard without a break. In the past competitions in which kite flyers would attempt to bring down their rivals’ kites by cutting the strings of their kites were also common. The strings were specially prepared to for this purpose. This practice is no longer seen in areas where the large kites of the wau type are flown.