The famous pigeon flyers of Agra are getting set for a battle royale in the traditional sport of kabootarbazi when thousands of these birds will flock the skies.
More than 10,000 pigeons are being trained at eight different locations by 18 groups of khalifas, or master trainers, who come from distant places for the week-long contest called Kulkul to be held from December 25-January 1.
The contest will see different teams of pigeons taking off from the grounds behind the Taj Mahal simultaneously and landing back at the same place. Through shouts and sounds, the trainers will try to get the pigeons of other teams to join their own group while in air. Eventually, whichever team returns to the ground with the maximum number of birds will be the winner.
"The training is strenuous and hard. The birds take off and land at the base. The group of birds that has the highest number is the winner," explained Nasir Husain, a passionate fan of kabootarbazi-or the art of flying pigeons.
Nasir said that each group of birds has more than 600 birds and when the group lands, the numbers usually increase or decrease as the trainers of the other groups try to mislead them through calls and sounds that the birds find confusing.
Right now the sulla war is on, which means the birds are returned to the owners, but from December 25 the "set" war will begin, which means no birds will be returned.
The Mughals started the sport and later the local khalifas of different neighbourhoods patronised it. The popularity of the sport had seen a downward trend but four years ago, a bureaucrat with a passion for it gave a big boost to kabootarbazi by organising a contest behind the Taj Mahal.
The mohallas, or crowded neighbourhoods, of old Agra still have patrons of this art.
"It's a costly passion. The birds have to be fed dry fruits and looked after. Pigeons are very delicate birds," Dinesh Yadav Choudhary, a kabootarbaz, told IANS.
The birds are trained to recognise colours, the shouts and sounds of their trainers, flying commands and landing orders.
It is believed that many ustaads tame the birds with doses of opium.
Talking of the diet of these birds, a kabootarbaz of Loha Mandi said: "The birds are given rich food, bajra with dry fruits, butter and a special roti that gives strength to their wings. It can cost up to Rs 1,000 a day for one group of birds."
Agra's feudal legacy has many such traditional sports like patangbazi (kite-flying), tairaki (swimming), akharebazi (wrestling).
"Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the old arts and passions are disappearing. But the kabootarbazs of Agra are special. One kabootarbaz of Gokulpura got so furious with a cat for killing a pigeon that he ripped open the cat from the middle," said Gyanesh Verma of Raja Ki Mandi.
Roller Singh, a vet, said: "It has become difficult to keep the birds in the darbas (pigeon shelters) on the terraces of the house because of monkeys which are quite a nuisance."
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org )