On a wing and a prayer: Pigeon fanciers of Kashmir are getting ready for the annual race of their birds

Kashmir’s pigeon racers have begun prepping their birds for this year’s edition of a much-loved sport

January 07, 2022 12:30 pm | Updated 12:31 pm IST

Pigeons fly near closed shops in Srinagar in November 2021.

Pigeons fly near closed shops in Srinagar in November 2021.

When night falls, the temperature plummets to 1°C: winter has arrived in Kashmir. In the evenings, the setting sun casts a riot of gold and red across the sky as Bilal Ahmad Mir, 39, looks out from his fourth-floor home. Mir, a famous pigeon racer, locally known as kotaar-baaz , lives in Srinagar’s Batamaloo, a hub of pigeon fanciers in the city.

Mir is among a growing community of hundreds of pigeon fanciers in Kashmir, who devote their time to competing in the race every year, as throngs of cheering spectators follow the birds in the skies to see which one is airborne the longest. It can be a three-day event or a week-long one. The top prizes range from cars to bikes to cash over ₹10,000.

When skies are blue

Mir, who is revered by pigeon racers, is a proud man today: his student, Shahnawaz Ahmad, won last year’s event. “On day one, Ahmad’s birds spent 55:19 hours in the air; on the next day they spent 57:23 hours and then 75:04 hours on day three. His opponents were a significant number of hours behind,” he says.

The rules of the game are simple; but they need loads of patience and time. Every year, the old hands of pigeon racers are appointed as judges in colonies in Srinagar and north Kashmir’s Baramulla and Bandipora districts. Each pigeon racer has to select the ablest seven pigeons from his coop and have them approved by the judges. The game starts at 5 a.m., generally in June and July when the skies are blue.

A Kashmiri pigeon fancier holds a pigeon on the rooftop of his house in Srinagar.

A Kashmiri pigeon fancier holds a pigeon on the rooftop of his house in Srinagar.

The player releases the seven birds, and a judge, binoculars in hand, counts the hours spent by them in the air before they return to the coop by evening or even by night. “And in case a bird does not return, it is out of the game and the participant loses on hours,” Niyaz Ahmad, a judge, explains. Many pigeon fanciers are able to whistle or make sounds that pigeons understand.

It takes Mir and other pigeon fanciers at least six months to prepare. Mir has already begun preparing for this year’s tournament. He has to keep a close eye on the rich breeds he has reared since he was a 20-year-old. First, he has to separate male and female pigeon ‘couples’ so they don’t mate as eggs will not survive Kashmir’s winters. “I have to also make sure they are fed well and are warm in wooden terraced coops,” says Mir as dozens of birds fly around and perch on rods and coop tops and peck at chickpeas.

Teddy in the air

For now, the terraced coops, home to around 250 pigeons, are divided into four sections: one for some 40 older couples, the second filled with young females, the third for ailing birds, and the fourth section is an open chowki (platform) where pigeons bask and feed together during the day when the sun is out.

By March, Mir should be clear about the pigeons that can take part in the race and separate them

A Kashmiri pigeon fancier with his pigeons on the rooftop of his house in Srinagar.

A Kashmiri pigeon fancier with his pigeons on the rooftop of his house in Srinagar.

from the cross-breeds and those that fail the fly tests done for weeks together in the blue skies. “The first flush of eggs, in February, does not produce a good breed of pigeons, not even from the best variety we have. We wait for the eggs laid in the second flush, in late February, to hatch for the final selection. Only pure breeds are nursed in the coops and the cross-breeds are set free,” says Mir.

Then begins the process of deworming and vaccinations. “We also clip the wings of the squabs in a certain fashion so they grow better shaped wings. We ensure a diet that helps them grow muscles and not fat: only the lean ones stay in the air the longest and can withstand the heat and humidity,” says Mir. The birds are fed dry fruits, chickpeas, mustard seeds and protein-rich supplements. The best breeds have names: Teddy, Zira, Cherry, Kalewozul, Zaag Cheen and Doub, among others.

Mir spends ₹5,000 to ₹10,000 per month to make sure the best breeds retain their agility and muscle strength.

Countdown begins

Last October, the Army organised a pigeon race tournament to strike a chord with local pigeon fanciers in in north Kashmir’s Baramulla. Twenty participants flew their best pigeons. “The game got a good response and will only encourage more locals to participate in the game,” says Manzoor Ahmad, 45, who has been raising the birds for the past 25 years.

The race comes with a fair share of dangers for the pigeons. Falcons and and other raptors attack them.

“Most of these pigeons will stay indoors for now. They will take wing only in February when the cold weather ebbs,” says Ahmad as a flock of pigeons flutters around him. “For now they must survive the harsh winter and prepare for the tournament this year.”

Back in Batamaloo, Mir is watching YouTube videos produced by his ‘guru’ from Pakistan, who is sharing techniques of rearing birds and checking their flight. “Pakistan’s Sialkot produces the best breeds and the tournaments there are watched by hundreds. In India, Rajasthan has the best breeders. I even visited Pakistan many years ago to take the blessings of my guru before setting my pigeons into the skies,” says Mir.

Says pigeon fancier Showat Qadir, who runs a tent business in Nishat, on the outskirts of Srinagar: “Life in Kashmir is frequently disrupted by curfews and shutdowns. This game keeps us busy and sane, and away from all that ails our society.”

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