Down Memory Lane History & Culture

Riding into the sunrise

Pigeon-fanciers pray after winning a bet at the New Year Kulkulain

Pigeon-fanciers pray after winning a bet at the New Year Kulkulain  

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There are many functions to mark New Year’s Day but probably two unique events were the Kulkuain or pigeon-fancying competition and the tonga race from Mathura to Agra or Mathura to Delhi. The most famous pigeon-fancier had some 2,000 pigeons, which he took from Delhi to Agra via Mathura and then flew them in 10 lots at Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, where the main Kulkulian competition took place on January 1. The chaudhury of the tonga race was Mohammad Qureshi Pehalwan, who ran an eating house in the Jama Masjid area and owned several fancy racing tongas, different from the usual ones as they were lighter built and could seat two persons, though a third one could also squeeze himself into it. The horse was a full-bred, strong and not emasculated like the one seen in the street-run tongas and ekkas.

High stakes

Now about the annual tonga race in which participants were from Delhi, Mathura, Agra, Bareilly, Shahjahanpur, Aligarh, Firozabad and Kasganj. The stakes were high and the winner got a hefty amount and a safa or ceremonial turban tied to his head, usually by the District Magistrate or Superintendent of Police of Agra district, while for the local race in Delhi this was generally done by the Lt-Governor amidst much applause. People lined up at the starting and ending points of the race with garlands and whatnot, some of them keener than the others because of the bets they had made-and these ran into thousands of rupees a long time back, when the buying power of money was much more and there were no ₹2,000 and 500 notes. But a hundred-rupee one was enough for a lower strata family for a week and ₹ 1,000 more than enough for a month, with rice and wheat at ₹1 a seer (flour is ₹240 for a kg now), mutton ₹130 a seer and vegetables dirt cheap compared to present day prices when even potatoes cost ₹ 25-30 a kg, and onions also that much, Chana dal 4 annas a seer, with the one given to horses just about an anna or two. So the tonga race winner became a lakhpathi in one go in those cheaper times.

By the time of the prize giving ceremony the crowd grew manifold, joined by those returning after the New Year service from the Sikandra church, where once the 18th Century printing press pioneer, William Carey worshipped and later the two “Wolf-Boys”, rescued from the jungles of Bulandshahr and Mainpuri, one of them named Dina Sanichar as he was found on a Saturday.

One can cover the distance between Delhi and Agra on horseback no doubt if in this age of cars, trains and planes one cares to. At a leisured pace, in stages, it might even be enjoyable if the sun is not too hot. But to make a race of it would be killing. And that was what it was, when two Delhi horses, one owned by the hotel owner in Jama Masjid and the other by a resident of Bazar Sita Ram, ran the course from Agra. The bet was reported to be ₹ 10,000 for the winner and there were transactions running into 10 times the figure.

Leaving the usual margin for exaggeration common to such occasions, it was without doubt a heavy wager. But nobody seemed to have reckoned the odds. The horses, beautiful specimens both, died before covering even the first stage to Mathura, barely 40 miles from Agra. The first fell after doing less than 25 miles and the other 28. Perhaps, it was too much to expect the horses to cover the distance of 40 miles at one stretch in the heat of an October afternoon; for even though the race began early in the morning, the horses were reported to have been racing for five hours. After Mathura, the next stage was to have been Palwal and the last Delhi.

Punishing pace

The Mughal emperors used to ride the distance. But it was in easy stages, with change of horses every few miles. The many monolith Kos Minars on the Delhi-Agra road are said to have marked the staging points.

It is said that a drummer was posted atop each monolith and would start beating his drum as soon as he saw the emperor’s entourage approaching in the distance. No doubt, horses were often driven hard and sometimes to death then, but to ride horses at a gruelling pace for a long stretch for no reason, except a bet is foolish and cruel.

As for the pigeon-fanciers, even now in the Walled City of Delhi there are several mohallas where the kaboortarbaz, as they are called, make the morning and evening ring to cries of “Aah” 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. There’s even a Kabootar Bazar where pigeons are sold and exchanged.

Hafiz Mian was a great kabootarbaz in the last century and his main rival was Deen Badshah. Each of them had pigeons, both of Indian and foreign breed. There were Russian, Turkish, Afghan 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 place of pride 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 recognise 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, Kesar still survives as a tall, fair, slim pretty lady ageing with grace, whose eyes glow with excitement whenever she sees a flock of pigeons darting across the sky to the frenzied whistling of a rival kabootarbaz.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 12:33:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/riding-into-the-sunrise/article25878984.ece

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