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When pigeons were king: the art and sport of kabootarbaazi

Rana Safvi | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:08 IST

Who hasn't heard the famous story about Jahangir and NurJahan (then Mehrunnisa)?

Dekho idhar ai Mahlaqa

Mera kabootar doosra

Jaldi batao kya huwa

Jhat bholepan se yeh kaha

Sarkar who tau udd jaaye

Bola ke hai kyunkar udda

Aisa tau ho sakta naa tha

Hat doosri mutthi jot hi

Kuchh muskura kar khol di

Yun udd gaya Aali Janab

Yeh saadgi uff re gazab!

Shahzaade ka dil aa gaya

Phir jaante ho kya huwa!

The story goes that one day, when Prince Salim was taking a round of the royal gardens with a pair of Shirazi pigeons, a beautiful flower distracted him and he wanted to pluck it. He saw a young Mehrunnisa standing nearby and gave her the pigeons to hold. She let one go. When Jahangir asked her how she could let it go she said, like this and let the other one fly away too.

I don't know authentic the story is but it's the stuff of which legends are made.

Anyone who has visited any monument around the country will have seen the pigeons flying all over. Most of our monuments have earthen pots full of water for them to drink from.

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In Delhi you will find pigeons being fed at busy intersections and they make a charming sight. Those affected by the nuisance of bird droppings are likely to disagree with me but for all purposes, our cities and pigeons have a relationship that cannot be broken.

It goes back centuries.

Once upon a time they were used for serious sport and spectacle. In many parts of old cities in the subcontinent, they still are. There are fights over pigeons if they suspect someone of stealing their birds by deceit. Loss of pigeons to other coops is a loss of prestige for the owner.

Kabootarbaazi or pigeon gaming is an age-old Indian tradition. According to Maheshwar Dayal in Aalam Mein Intikhab Dilli, keeping pigeons goes back to the Mahabharat when these birds were kept in the palaces and entertained the royalty. Ladies would sit in their jharokhas (balconies) and watch them.

But it was the Muslim kings who took this pastime to another level, that of sport. Since there was no opposition from the clergy this sport was adopted even by the common man.

Firoz Shah Tughlaq had built a hospital for sick pigeons in his Kotla. Timur took away many pigeons from Firozabad Kotla as part of his spoils.

The art reached its zenith under Jahangir who equated kabootarbaazi with ishqbaazi and brought renowned experts in the sport to Delhi.

Mahv e parvaaz hai yeh dil aur main

Jaan chidakta hun is kabootar par

Kashif Husain Ghair

This heart is engrossed in flying, in love

I can sacrifice my life for this dove

Many poets used the pigeon as imagery for the heart.

It was also used as a signal.

The Mughal Emperor's entourage leaving the Palace would be announced by releasing a coloured pigeon so that all could be informed of his advent.

Bahadur Shah Zafar had in his employ a man called Syed Waris Ali, who had trained 200 pigeons to fly in rows behind the Emperor when he came out of his palace seated on his favorite elephant Maula Baksh on the way to the Eidgaah for prayers. The pigeons would provide shade for the Emperor.

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What's more, these pigeons were trained to fly in such a way that their droppings didn't fall on the Emperor or his elephant. I can just visualise the magnificence by recalling the modern day air parades of jets flying in formation.

After Ahmed Shah Abdali sacked Delhi many kabootarbaaz went to Awadh.

Wajid Ali Shah had 24,000 pigeons in his palace including a pair of 'ReshamPara', bought at the exorbitant price of Rs 25,000 even in those times!

He had to leave them behind when he was exiled to Calcutta and by all accounts missed them sorely.

The art of kabootarbaazi

The pigeon fanciers are called Ustads and the experts are called Khalifas.

Kabootarbaazi the sport involves teaching the pigeons to fly from their own houses and return home with pigeons from some other flocks. The pigeons are taught to respond to their master's voice.

In Bareilly, our mohalla has many kabootarbaaz and come evening you can hear many sounds of 'aa aa aa' with masters calling their pigeons home. It's a sound that cannot be described - it has to be heard and seen when every rooftop is filled with the fanciers and you can see flocks all over the sky.

His master's voice

Owners would lovingly spend much time with their kabootars and adorn their feet with jewellery ranging from bangles to ghungroos.

The pigeons in turn would reciprocate and always come home.

They would be fed ghee and malai. Some even fed their flying pigeons opium and other intoxicating substances to induce 'masti'.

Kabootars such as Girahbaaz could fly for hours and they never forgot either their coops or their food.

kabootarbaazi embed 1

The pigeon coops were called 'kaabuk' and they were built on the roofs of the houses with great care and love. Pigeons became such an integral part of their owner's lives that the loss of one pigeon would send them into despair and they would go to great lengths to recover them.

Some of that wistful love for the bird and the sport is evident each time I visit Old Delhi in the evenings I can see the pigeons being called home.

The joining of one's flock in another is loss of prestige and a challenge, to bring them back.

Udte udte kabhi masoom kabootar koi

Aapki chat pe utar aaye to shak karta hun

Ahmad Kamal Parwazi

If an innocent pigeon while flying in the sky

comes to rest on your roof I feel envy

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First published: 7 December 2015, 4:39 IST
Rana Safvi @iamrana

Rana Safvi is an author and historian with a passion for culture and heritage. She is the founder and moderator of the popular #shair platform on Twitter. Her book Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, The first city of Delhi has just been published.