Wildbuzz | The Baaz, from prince to pauper
It would entail a feat of extraordinary diligence to unearth another species that could rival the obscurity heaped on the charismatic Northern goshawk (baaz) after Partition.
A species that found rich resonance in religious/cultural life and the noble courts of the sub-continent all but disappeared from Indian public consciousness, barring the odd practitioner of falconry who persisted with his/her passion and procured this bird with increasing difficulty. To add to the goshawk’s woes, it is confused in the public mind with humdrum raptor species, such as Black kites, and its distinct profile erased. To be sure, not a single goshawk is retained in any Indian zoo.
Regarded as the most esteemed bird of prey in the Mughal period, its association as a raptor trained to hunt with Mughal emperors, Sindh Ameers, hill rajahs, Bhavnagar kings and Sikh Gurus bestowed upon the goshawk exalted titles and names: Shikari chidiyon ka sardar, Shah-en-Shah, Sikander and Shahbaaz. As delineated by its zoological nomenclature in the Latin --- Accipiter gentilis --- this raptor could only be flown by the nobility. It was adored by kings because of its reckless courage while pursuing prey: a prize female goshawk of the Sindh nobles is even recorded to have brought down Chinkara gazelles! Considered without avian peer in the sub-continent’s chivalrous cultures, the goshawk was exchanged between royals as gifts, delivered as ransom and triggered battles between Sikh Gurus and Mughals.
Ornithological literature unearths a money trail peculiar to the baaz. In the bygone era, the goshawk was trapped from Afghanistan and Gilgit-Baltistan and sold for staggering sums to the sub-continent’s princes at Lahore/Amritsar mandis. Just how much was a baaz’s price, when salaries were in annas and few rupees:
“The baaz (female goshawk) is the most highly esteemed bird of prey in India and a trained bird used to be sold for a large sum in former days...for prices varying from ₹20-50 and ₹10-30 for the male (known as Zurrah)”, wrote the ‘father of Indian ornithology’,TC Jerdon, in The Birds of India, Volume 1, 1862.
“The Shahbaaz is an expensive bird...sometimes costing as much as a (sum) fully equal to £200 in England,” wrote Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton in his 1852 work, Falconry in the Valley of Indus.
“Every Indian prince in whose state falconry still survives does not consider his menage complete without a goshawk, and it is the zenith of every Indian falconer’s ambition to possess a goshawk... ₹150-200 being paid for a young female (baaz) a few days after it has been captured,” wrote CH Donald in his 1920 work, The Birds of Prey of the Punjab.
“An American soldier wanted to purchase a goshawk from the famous Amritsar mandi for raptors in 1941-’42. He later wrote in a magazine about his failure to purchase the Rajahs’ bird. This was because the goshawk was available for a princely sum of ₹300 then and was being eyed by the ‘baazdars’ sent to the mandi by the kings with bursting purses. In contrast, a Peregrine falcon was available for ₹5-15 at the mandi then,” recalled Sarfrazuddin Malik, an accomplished falconer who flew raptors in California before returning home to imbibe the art from the royal falconers of Bhavnagar, Gujarat.
However, a graded change in the goshawk’s fortunes came about when Punjab adopted the goshawk as the State Bird in 1989 and the species was dusted from layers of archival ignominy. Recorded as a sparse breeder in India and a very rare winter visitor to the plains, the goshawk’s rarefied status is set for a much-needed boost the coming week. Under the Government of India’s initiative to commemorate 75 years of India’s Independence, the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) has undertaken a series of activities under the banner of ‘Azadi ka amrit mahotsava’. The Ludhiana zoo has been tasked by the CZA to focus on the goshawk from November 29 to December 5 and undertake massive outreach activities to showcase the raptor regarded as a symbol of the Gurus and culturally embodying the valorous, martial spirit of the people.
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