Ustad Shaadi Lal Sharma is angry. A lad, 12 roofs away from his home in Old Delhi's Sitaram Bazaar, has just captured one of his pigeons. Sharma hurls expletives at the fellow who feigns ignorance. The 60-year-old ustad whips out his mobile phone, a Nokia 1100, and asks the would-be thief to let the bird go. By now, groups of men have emerged on both roofs. Being the veteran, ustadji has the last word and the pigeon is let off. It returns to its home flock of rangeen kabootar that are part of Sharma's collection of around 300 pigeons of different colours - one of the biggest in the Walled City.
Such altercations are rare but inevitable in pigeon keeping. "This game has its own rules and terminology," Sharma explains. While ladaana refers to trapping someone else's birds - "That is what you saw just now," says Sharma - haqaana means to race. There are words to describe relationships within the pigeon-keeping fraternity too. If two enthusiasts have a relationship of said, the one who captures the other's pigeon keeps it. If their relationship is cordial and governed by sulah, the bird is returned to the master. The most spectacular event of haqaana or pigeon racing conducted on Republic Day is keenly attended. Months of preparation precede these races: birds are fed special foods and are made to fly more frequently and go farther afield.
Pigeon keeper Mohammad Sajid’s friend Shoaib whistles to the birds and directs their movement. (Gurinder Osan/HT Photos)
Malaai, one of the three attendants, who look after Sharma's birds, opens one of the cages on the roof. Sabz parey - black and white birds - emerge making a huge racket with their wings and flutter away for their daily rounds. Sharma whistles to direct their movements as they hover over different neighbourhoods. In a few minutes, he makes a come-back call and the birds return, landing gracefully on the roof before hastening to peck at scattered baajra seeds.
Pigeon breeds such as Mag Pie, Shirazi and Basra cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 and 20,000. (Photo: Gurinder Osan/HT)
Pigeon keeping has a long and rich history in Old Delhi. Sahid Siddiqui, author of The Golden Pigeon, says pigeon keeping and flying became immensely popular during Mughal rule. "When Shahjahan shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi and built Shahjahanabad - the original name of Old Delhi - the tradition got transported. The pigeon became the symbol of the city. No other bird got such importance. There were pigeon clubs like we have football clubs these days. People used to decorate the tails and wings of pigeons," he says.
Pigeons are kept in coops according to their breed and gender. (Photo: Gurinder Osan/HT)
Emperor Babur's memoir, the Tuzk-e-Babri, contains numerous mentions of the sport. Describing the death of his father, Umar Sheikh Mirza, he writes movingly: "…the fort of Akhsl (sic) is situated above a deep ravine ; along this ravine stand the palace buildings, and from it, on Monday, Ramzan 4, (June 8th.) Umar Shaikh Mirza flew, with his pigeons and their house, and became a falcon."
Author of Old Delhi - Living Traditions and former election commissioner SY Quraishi, who spent the early years of his life in the area, writes of the connection between pigeons and a terrible event in the city's medieval history: "It is said that Nadir Shah's infamous massacre of Delhi was prompted by a fight between his solider and a pigeon-seller, who didn't want to sell his pigeons for a low price. There must be some reasons why it wasn't gold or silver that started the flight, but a humble pigeon."
Ustad Shadi Lal Sharma (60), a veteran bird keeper in Old Delhi, inherited the sport from his father.(Photo: Gurinder Osan/HT)
Old Delhi, where the sport continues to flourish, still evokes romantic images of soaring flocks and inspires lyricists to write songs like 'Masakkali' from Delhi-6 that pays homage to pigeon keeping. Rooftops in the area get so crowded during the day that keepers have fixed timings to prevent birds from clashing. "It is our air traffic control mechanism," says Mohammad Sajid, 40, from Matia Mahal.
Like any other highly skilled group, pigeon keepers follow an elaborate hierarchy. Ustads like Sharma are the senior most; then come the khaleefas and the shaagirds. There are about 30 ustads in Delhi. Lavish feasts are thrown for the entire biraadari (community) of pigeon keepers when one of them completes his apprenticeship and finally becomes a shaagird. "It takes six months to a year to compete the training," says Naeem Quraishi, one of Sharma's proteges, who is now a khaleefa. While he kept about 50 pigeons when he was learning, he now owns about 150 birds. The birds are mostly bought from markets in Agra and Punjab.
Keepers prefer these to native bird as local birds often return to previous owners - an unpalatable thought when you consider that pigeon breeds like Magpie, Shirazi and Basra cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 per bird. Add to that the cost of dry fruit and desi ghee that are part of the birds' winter diet. "It is a rich man's hobby," Sajid concedes as his assistants return his birds to their coops.