For whom bells tinkle

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Apr 06, 2015 13:14 IST

The northern goshawk is the state bird of Indian Punjab due to its association with Guru Gobind Singh and earlier Gurus. The goshawk was pre-eminent in its status as a bird of falconry or hawking in the Mughal period. But Punjab’s contemporary denizens can neither see this bird in captivity nor is it a wintering migrant here from the Himalayas.

Goshawks awaiting air shipment to falconry pageant. Photo credits: PAKISTAN FALCONRY ASSOCIATION

To make matters worse, the Punjab government has not heeded the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’s call to procure this bird for captive breeding and print its picture on "calendars, publications and momentos". Neither is the goshawk held in captivity in any Indian zoo. It was, therefore, a revelation when I learnt that the goshawk is the most popular raptor among 1,800 families practising falconry in Pakistan. This deep-chested raptor, renowned for reckless courage, has come a long way from the origins of its scientific name, Accipiter gentilis. Meaning, a bird that only the nobility could fly in the bygone era. "Anyone in Pakistan can procure a hawking permit for $100 in Punjab and $20 in Sindh and Balochisthan," informs Kamran Khan Yousufzai, President, Pakistan Falconers Association.

Trained goshawk with prey. Photo credits:PAKISTAN FALCONRY ASSOCIATION

The gosha is declared a species of ‘least concer by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), i.e, its numbers are not declining so fast as to warrant alarm. The IUCN does warn that “nest robbing for falconry” is among the major threats. Though some conservationists would want falconry abolished, Yousufzai argues the sport is sustainable. “We catch juvenile hawks, 80 per cent of which otherwise perish in the wild. These are released back into the wild after training and hunting. We promote gamebirds and their habitats for sustainable hawking,” Yousufzhai told this writer.

Goshawks, which were once trained to bring down gazelle in Sindh, are currently deployed to hunt partridge, quail and chukor in Pakistan. A Pointer dog completes the trinity of hunters. The dog flushes the quarry and the goshawk is released in a muscular flight of pursuit. Trained goshawks are adorned with bells to enable handlers to locate the avian hunter after it has brought down a gamebird in the bush. As the goshawk savagely rips the gamebird’s feathers and hurls them away with the contemptuous ease of a man chucking golfballs from a bucket, the bells tinkle quaintly like that of feeding cattle. A contrasting, and seemingly gently-applied halal by the handler, completes the hunt’s rituals.

Ingenious methods are used to trap goshawks when they wing their way down migratory flyways, such as the gorgeous Chitral Valley, in late autumn. One way is to build an underground chamber with a sky hole camouflaged with leaves/branches, tether a chukor as a bait outside, and pull the goshawk into the chamber when it latches onto the chukor. Though the hood method of breaking the freshly-trapped raptor’s resistance to humans is well known, an innovative modus operandi is to tether the goshawk to a charpoy in a moffusil bazaar. The raptor speedily acclimatises not just to the chaos of humanity but to all manner of wandering creatures like donkeys, dogs, mendicants, trinket sellers and prostitutes!

On wings of verses

The ancient passion for falconry has earned an inscription on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In Pakistan, popular depictions of falconry adorn trucks, house tops, buses and rickshaws. Pakistan’s national poet, Allama Mohammad Iqbal, deployed hawks and falcons extensively in his poetry to symbolise self-respect, prestige, courage, purity of soul, perseverance and self-control.

For Pakistani falconers, the iconic figure remains the 17th century Pashtun warrior-poet, Khushal Khan Khattak, whose book, ‘Baaznaama’, is considered the holy grail on the subject. Translated from the Pashto by Sami ur Rehaman, here are verses from the ‘Baaznama’ that give flight to our imagination where it hovers on a timeless scene.

PHOTO CAPTION: Pakistani falconers with goshawks.Photo Credits: PAKISTAN FALCONRY ASSOCIATION


Spring on the one side, Nightingales’ songs on the other, Some ride the Arab steeds, Others some other rides, Fine falcons on the arms, And abundant kill all around, Sniffers leading the way, Friends with falcons, Strapped greyhounds, Unstrapped from time to time, Relaxed mood and milieu, Except the thought of the sweetheart, I sacrifice the whole world, For such a great pastime.

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