When one mentions about our cultural heritage, the ‘Wau’ comes almost second to none. A favourite pastime in the old days, it is today regarded as an art form albeit close to extinction; as the country’s younger generation looks to new forms of artistic interpretation and self expression. Events such as the International Kite Festival held recently at Pasir Gudang, Johor is one of the many celebrated efforts that should serve as an eye-opener to the young, thus instilling love to our treasured heritage.
The word ‘Wau’ is believed to have been derived from the Arabic letter ‘Wau’, because the shape of the wing resembles the outline of that particular letter. Many legends and local folklore surrounds the origin and even method of handling the Wau. It is said that in the past, farmers used the Wau as a sort of flying scarecrow to ward off birds from their paddy fields, and the sounds made by the Wau once it was airborne was said to lull their children to sleep which in turn gave the farmers ample time to tend to their crops without any distractions.
The most popular of all the Wau’s is indeed the “Wau Bulan”. A name that certainly fits one of the three country’s official kites, the name takes after the shape of the moon because the tail of this Wau is resembles that of a crescent. One of the more stable kites amongst the others, the “Wau Bulan” is known for its easy handling and stability during strong winds. The origin of the “Wau Bulan” is said to have been during the days of the Sri Wijaya Empire, where according to legend, a young prince named Dewa Muda utilised the usage of the Wau by mapping out the districts that he had conquered on the Wau itself, which he will then display to his people.
It is said that he would first go deep into a cave to meditate and experience spiritual premonitions before setting off to war. When he is ready to leave the cave, he usually emerges with a wire frame of what was believed to be the wire frame of a “Wau Bulan”. The fine patterns of flowers and leaves were said to have symbolised the districts that he had successfully conquered. Therefore, every time he returns from battle, the flowers and leaf patterns on his Wau will continue to ‘grow’, symbolising the strength of his empire; much to the pride and delight of his people. According to fabled beliefs, it is said that the Dewa Muda had a spiritual link to his Wau. Some believed that he gained special spiritual guidance by flying up to the heavens on his “Wau Bulan” and cultivated a spiritual relationship with the inhabitants of another world.
Today, the “Wau Bulan” that is still present in our modern day society takes on a more different, almost up to date look compared to its original design. The upper and lower part of the Wau is more elongated rather than its originally rounded shape. The busur or strings attached to the head of the Wau emits a coarser sound compared to the softer sounds made by the “Wau Bulan” of yesteryears.
Unlike both its Kelantan counterparts, the “Wau Jala Budi” has a unique feature in which its name and shape did not originate from its surroundings or any sort of animal; which is how a name is usually chosen for a particular Wau. Many actually believe that the “Wau Jala Budi” got its name due to the shape of its tail which resembles the ‘daun budi’; a type of leaf commonly found in the state of Kedah. The word ‘jala’ which means net, was later adapted because the strings attached to the tail of the Wau looked like a net being cast into the air when the kite was in flight. The two words were then later combined into one; thus the name “Wau Jala Budi” was then acknowledged and used till this day.
The third and more commercially used of all the country’s official kites is none other than the “Wau Kucing”. Commercially known for its prominent use by the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) as the company’s corporate logo, the “Wau Kucing” derives its name from the sound made by the Wau’s busur or strings that very much resembles the sounds made by a cat. Originated from Kelantan during the late 1960’s, the “Wau Kucing” was still relatively new compared to the Malaysian kite scene as no one really knew how to recreate this particular Wau apart from the kite makers from Kelantan themselves. However, after many related festivals held regionally, other kite makers from many other states started to learn and practise the making of the “Wau Kucing”.
During the past, kite flying was seen as a seasonal event, usually held immediately after the harvest of rice. But as the years pass by, the Malaysian kites were not only present during ceremonial functions but also in major competitions and international festivals as well. Today, the Wau has come to be an artistic object which is judged solely for its beauty, its intricate designs, combination of colours, and the neatness of the workmanship.
Among the other types of Wau are the “Wau Dodo Helang”, “Wau Kebayak”, “Wau Daun”, “Wau Kikik”, “Wau Merak”, “Wau Puyuh”, “Wau Kapal”, “Wau Seri Bulan”, “Wau Helang”, “Wau Kangkang”, and the “Wau Seri Negeri”. Although beauty is solely ones first focus when viewing a Wau, to the Wau enthusiast, the most important factor is actually the sound or ‘denggung’ that resonates from the Wau when its high up in the air; flying against the strong winds.
It is in fact up to us; the present generation to cultivate the love for a fading cultural heritage such as the Wau. To preserve its wonderful accompanying stories and folklore, to help mould the new generation into future and even better kite makers than their predecessors, and to bring the Wau into new uncharted heights on an international level. It is hoped that the strings that keep the beauty of our proud culture will be held longer and will be led up higher into the sky for many years to come for the benefit and knowledge of our future generation.