Delhi’s feathered friends have witnessed many an adventure and romance.

The New Year brings with it a host of activities and pastimes, one of which is pigeon fancying. Even now in the Walled City there are several mohallas where the kabootarbaz, as they are called, make morning and evening ring to cries of “Aaoo” to call back the air-borne pigeons. However, there was a time when, like the patangbaz or kite fliers, they too went to open spaces near the Yamuna bank to engage in kulkulain or competitions after feeding coarse grain to their flocks. Now because of encroachments on the river bank and consequent lack of space the pigeon-fanciers compete only from their rooftops.

Hafiz Mian was a great kabootarbaz in the last century and his main rival was Deen Badshah. Each of them had hundreds of pigeons, both of Indian and foreign breed. There were Russian, Turkish, Afghan pigeons and Burmese and some other South Asian breeds and of course, those from all over India. Their cost even then was great, with the acrobatic Lotan kabootar occupying pride of place in the kabootar-khana or specially built wood and wire mesh cages, with pigeon-holes for the birds to roost. The greybaz was also a highly prized bird like the Kabuli. Dennis Bhai’s old father, Elias Sahib, used to say that his son could recognize the breed of a passing-by pigeon by just examining its droppings. Dennis Bhai had greenish eyes, just like some of his pigeons, and when he married he found a Muslim girl with the same kind of eyes, making a friend remark : “Wah Dennis, dulhan bhi khoob chuni hai. Aankh se aankh mila di”. Bravo, you have found a bride with matching eyes. Dennis Bhai is dead but his dulhan, Qaisar, still survives as a tall, fair, slim pretty lady aging with grace, whose eyes glow with excitement whenever she sees a flock of pigeons darting across the sky to the frenzied whistling of rival kabootarbaz.

Pigeon-fancying is a very old sport. It was known in Egypt about 3,000 years ago and found great patronage in India during the Mughal era when pigeon-fanciers from Baghdad, Turkey, Iran and Egypt flocked to the court. Prince Salim, who ascended the throne as Jahangir, spent several hours in their company learning the tricks of pigeon-flying. It is said that one day he asked a young palace girl, Mehr-un-Nissa, to hold two of his pigeons while he went to answer an urgent summons from his father, the Emperor Akbar. On his return he found the girl had only one pigeon in her hand. When he asked her what had happened to the other, she replied; “This”, and released the other pigeon also. Her witty answer pleased the prince and he fell in love with her. Later, he married the girl, who became famous as Nur Jahan.

Akbar himself was very fond of pigeon-flying and had some 20,000 pigeons of his own. He called the pastime “Ishkbazi” or love-play. Fr. Monserrate, who saw them, writes in his commentary:

“The pigeons are cared for by eunuchs and servant-maids. Their evolutions are controlled at will, when they are flying, by means of certain signals, just as those of well-trained soldiery are controlled by a competent general by means of bugles and drums. It will seem little short of the miraculous when I affirm that, when sent out, they dance, turn somersaults all together in the air, fly in orderly rhythm, and return to their starting point, all at the sound of a whistle.” To come back to Hafiz Mian and Deen Badshah, the two, could do all that Monserrate observed and won many wagers against each other in competitions in which pigeon-fanciers from Bareilly, Agra, Gwalior, Saharanpur, Allahabad, Lucknow, Kanpur and Moradabad also participated. At two contests the stake was Rs.50,000, which was a very big amount back then. The last Delhi Kulkulain took place on January, 1, 1952 near Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra (Agra) and Deen Badshah won half a lakh of rupees in a gruelling contest. Hafiz Mian stopped flying pigeons as he had lost most of his birds to his lucky rival and become almost a pauper – like the pigeon-fancier who lost his all after a fight with Nadir Shah’s troopers, leading to the 1739 massacre of Delhi.

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