It’s 10 minutes before noon and Ustad Anil Sood is ready. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and trousers, he puts on a black sleeveless jacket, a golden bracelet and watch, and rushes all the way up a spiral, dingy flight of stairs in his five-storey building. He is headed to the roof — his playground, like that of over a thousand other “kabootarbaaz” in this part of Old Delhi.
He has been on this roof, flanked by the historic Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib and Jama Masjid, “jab se maine hosh sambhala hai (since I gained consciousness)”, says the 45-year-old. The family has a construction business, which takes care of their “khaana-peena”, but kabootarbaazi is what gives them their “josh (zeal)”, Sood says.
In Agra last week, a six-day contest of kabootarbaazi was stopped following objections from the Animal Welfare Board of India, on grounds of cruelty to pigeons.
Over here in Old Delhi, in the midst of the peak December-March season, Sood is unflappable as he prepares his pigeons for their contests of the day. Kabootarbaazi was popularised in India by the Mughals, and Sood’s family, as per his estimation, has been participating in it “for over hundred years”. “It’s a passion,” he repeats, “a part of purani Delhi tradition.”
There are eight enclosures in all on the roof, holding about 100-150 pigeons each, from Hyderabad, Lucknow, Patiala and Delhi. Sood walks up to the enclosures and, for the next few minutes, talks to his pigeons — some “baat-cheet”, he says, to prep them.
A ‘shagird’ stands at the gate of the enclosure holding the Hyderabadi pigeons. Around 12.30 pm, Sood raises his left arm, the shagird flings open the gate, and the batch of 150 Hyderabadi pigeons — ivory-coloured with a few specks of grey, each with a name, and with tiny, special ghungroo (anklets) on their feet — are off, in a not-so-pretty rush.
At the same moment, from the roof of another building, two lanes away, an ustad releases his batch of “Lakhnawi” pigeons. The first kabootarbaazi game of the day is on.
This is a race, with the ustad whose pigeons fly the farthest from his roof to be declared the victor.
Sood isn’t worried. “In Kinari Bazaar, there are 12 ustads. My pigeons win most contests,” he smiles.
There is no money involved in these daily competitions, he clarifies. “But many ustads organise professional contests from time to time where the winner gets anything between Rs 1,000-50,000.”
One is crowned an ustad at an elaborate ceremony, involving the tying of a pagdi (turban). Sood’s brother, 42-year-old Arjun, is still a khalifa, a rank between a shagird and an ustad. Shagirds train under an ustad, and Sood has six with him today.
Sood points out the single black pigeon in his flock, now already some distance away. “That is my trademark. By it, people know these are my birds.”
All eyes now on the two rival flocks, Sood picks up his tool — a “chapka (wooden stick with a net)” — while the shagirds and khalifas get their sticks with red cloth tied to them. Then they begin the shouting. “The idea is to ensure that the pigeons don’t return to the roof and fly further away. Also, they must fly opposite to the wind, otherwise they are disqualified,” says Sood, making loud, throaty cries.
There are broad smiles as Sood takes another look at the sky and tells you which part of the city his pigeons are in — Sadar Bazaar. That is 2 km away.
On the other roof there is growing anger, as the Lakhnawi pigeons have started returning. The aggression palpable now, Sood and his team start shouting expletives to keep the pigeons away. “They (the pigeons) are like children, they need to be trained. It’s like accelerating a vehicle,” says a 14-year-old shagird.
Around 1.30 pm, Sood’s father Ram Kishan (75) comes to the roof. As he takes out his more robust tools — a big steel plank and an iron rod — one of Sood’s pigeons suddenly appears on the railing of the roof.
Kishan begins thumping the plank. Alarmed, the pigeon zooms off. Kishan says that was Chandna. “Usko badhazmi ho gai hai, thodi sust bhi hai (Her stomach’s upset, she is lazy too), but this is a strict sport.”
Few know pigeons better than Kishan, who makes two trips a year to markets across India to purchase the birds for his “team”. “The jungli (wild) pigeons come for as little as Rs 100, but each of my pigeons cost me nothing less than Rs 1,000.”
Elaborating what they look for, he adds, “The beak must be of one colour, even the body shouldn’t have mixed colours. We like the Hyderabadi and Irani breeds, all white and beautiful.”
The “training” begins when the pigeons are around three years old. “The pigeons are at their fittest and fastest then,” says Sood.
Later, after the game, Kishan holds Chandna’s feet and shakes them, and puts a net on top of her for a few minutes. “This is how we punish them. It’s like pulling a child’s ear,” he explains.
By now, the sky is full of pigeons. “Those near Jama Masjid belong to Muslim kabootarbaaz. We have competitions with them too, there is no religious rivalry,” says Sood.
His contest won, Sood raises his right arm and shrieks “Aaaoooo” — a cue for the pigeons to get back. In a twinkling of ghungroos, the birds fly in, and go straight for the mix of almonds and walnuts, grains and ghee that Arjun has sprinkled on the floor.
“They need a special diet, they are racers. This diet ensures they fly far and fight the winds,” he says watching with pride.
Explaining the anklets, Sood says, “They are just to enhance beauty. They come in many varieties too. The ones from Delhi have pearls, the Hyderabadi ones have metallic beads…”
The pigeons are still eating when, minutes later, Sood signals to one of the khalifas to fling a shoe in their middle. The stunned pigeons fly up again. “This is real training, so that they know I am the master,” says Sood.
His pigeons take on rival flocks two more times in the next one hour, winning each time. Satisfied, Sood finally calls the racers back.
At 3 pm, the tired pigeons get their “energy drink”. Sood grinds raw turmeric, dry ginger and other “jadi bootis (medicinal herbs)” together on a stone platform, and mixes their juice into a pot of lukewarm water for the birds. “Every ustad has a secret recipe,” he says. “We go to a hakim (unani doctor) to get the mix.”
After they have had their fill, the Hyderabadi pigeons are led into their enclosures — and they go in unprotesting.
However, for Sood, the second part of the day is only just beginning. For this, he takes out his “Patialas”— brown and grey pigeons, bigger and tougher, and “not as beautiful” as the Hyderabadis. As the birds are released with special sounds again, the rules are different. This flock’s aim is to take on the one from the neighbouring roof. The mission: to ensure your birds are not scared on to the opponent’s roof.
Arjun believes what happened in Agra stemmed from this. “An ustad lost 400 pigeons in fighting and complained to the police.”
The other side has pitted Hyderabadi pigeons against his Patialas. After a 10-minute bout, Sood shouts out “Ho!”, a signal for the birds to return. Suddenly an eagle appears in the mix, and his team’s fears come alive. One of Sood’s team members shouts “lagiya” — signalling that one of their pigeons was moving towards the other roof. Quickly, the screams get hoarser and Kishan begins beating the steel plank even more frantically. The contingency plan works, the pigeon flies back.
“Izzat ka sawal tha (It was a question of honour),” Sood smiles relieved. There are two more such 10-minute bouts in a game.
Arjun says it’s not the eagles that are the biggest threat. “It is the Chinese manjha (the string used for kite-flying that injures birds). This is the season of patangbaazi (kite-flying) too.”
The rounds of kabutarbaazi continue till pigeons in all their eight enclosures have had their time in the sky.
As they begin to pack up, Kishan dismisses suggestions that the sport may be dying. “My father, grandfather, each one was a kabootarbaaz. In Old Delhi, the excitement around the sport is growing.”
He can also tell you why. “After school, I know where my children will be — on the roof, playing with pigeons. It is better than smoking or drinking.” Sood smiles sheepishly and says his children are at tuitions.
As he looks down below, at the cacophony and rush that mark the narrow lanes of Kinari Bazaar in Chandni Chowk, where time has long stood still and down which his children will soon be returning, Sood tells you what he and his pigeons find on the roof on such sunny winter afternoons: “freedom”.
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