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Kabootar Baazi a.k.a pigeon flying: The Fading Sport of Purani Dilli

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Young kid holding a pigeon in his hand
Young kid holding a pigeon in his hand

Our incredible Delhi is truly a timeless treasure, offering countless reasons to be proud of being a Delhiite. Its culture, heritage, monuments, food, and people are just a few of the countless attributes that make it extraordinary. Among the many jewels of Delhi, we find the towering figure of the esteemed poet, Mirza Ghalib. Although we are tempted to delve into discussions of poets and poetry, let us focus on a different topic—kabootar baazi or pigeon flying.

The art of pigeon racing, a traditional practice intertwined with the rich history of Purani Dilli, received royal patronage from the Mughal rulers. While kabootar baazi is not as popular today, a visit to Purani Dilli reveals how its residents diligently preserve this cherished folklore. Amidst the bustling lanes of Chandni Chowk, where car horns resonate and bustling crowds navigate their way, one can witness this unique spectacle. Beyond shops selling gaudy bangles, the aroma of mouthwatering nahari and biryani wafting through the air, and burqa-clad women engaged in lively haggling, lies an experience found only upon the parapets of homes.

Visitor enjoying pigeon flying during old delhi heritage walks by Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein
Visitor enjoying pigeon flying during old delhi heritage walks by Purani Dilli Walo Ki Baatein

On those rooftops, young men stand, gazing at the sky, controlling a fleet of pigeons with a unique language of whistles, nets, and bags of seeds. It is astonishing to witness these pigeons, usually associated with flighty and independent behavior, obediently responding to their human counterparts. The pigeons gracefully soar, following the verbal commands of the kabootarbaaz, ascending and descending at will.

To become an ustad or khalifa in this art form requires mastery over these skills. Though it may seem trivial to some, those devoted to kabootar baazi make it their passionate goal, striving to excel. However, there are only a few esteemed khalifas and even fewer ustads, individuals who have been trained under the guidance of earlier masters, and for whom pigeon racing is a serious craft.

During the winter season, the rooftops, or chhat, become a bustling hub of activity. Youngsters, ustads, and shagirds (apprentices) fill the rooftops, sending their pigeons soaring through the skies. The air becomes filled with the symphony of whistles, marking the arrival of the kabootar baazi season. Over time, this sport has seen considerable development, with annual matches held in various areas of Purani Dilli. The racing season, spanning from December to February, brings numerous pigeon races to many parts of Old Delhi. These races commence in the early morning hours, with participants eagerly awaiting the return of their feathered competitors. Among the surviving races is the ambit flying race, where the gola kabootars that fly the farthest against the wind and return through the same route are hailed as victors. Nearly 500 people in Old Delhi participate in this sport, in which the pigeons' ability to fly against the wind and cover the greatest distance determines the winners.

You may wonder how participants keep track of the pigeons and determine the victors. The answer lies in the tiny rings attached to the pigeons' legs, containing details such as name, gender, age, address of the attic, and a unique tag number. This system ensures that each pigeon's performance can be accurately monitored and evaluated. The tradition of kabootar baazi reached its zenith in Agra during the reign of Emperor Akbar and was later introduced to Dilli (then known as Shahjahanabad) by Shah Jahan. Even Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who held dominion over major parts of Dilli, always had an elephant accompany him, carrying the royal pigeons' house. Pigeons held great importance not only in the past but also in various parts of our country, such as Hyderabad, Agra, and Patiala.

Allow me to share a personal anecdote. My cousin, who is a passionate kabootarbaz, spends a significant amount of time training his pigeons. His daily routine involves feeding the pigeons with desi ghee (pure tallow) and dry fruits, tending to their needs, treating any ailments, and ensuring their overall well-being. He provides individual care and attention to each bird, nurturing their strength and skills. Although kabootar baazi is a declining sport, he remains dedicated to his passion, investing his earnings in acquiring pigeons from local markets in Delhi, Hyderabad, Agra, and Patiala. To familiarize the pigeons with their surroundings, their feathers are sewn or cut and left open on the roof. Separate enclosures are prepared for males and females, old and young, and healthy and frail pigeons. Additionally, there is a special coop for sick birds and those that are expecting offspring.

For most kabootarbaaz, the time spent on the rooftop is a cherished stress buster. In Purani Dilli, rooftops serve a purpose beyond drying clothes—they become gathering places where kabootarbaaz gather to share tea and camaraderie. Kabootar baazi serves as a legacy that has kept the residents of Purani Dilli united for years, fostering lasting bonds. Although it has become a rare sport, kabootar baazi still holds a special place in the hearts of people in regions like Purani Dilli and Agra, where belief in these time-honored games remains steadfast. The people of Purani Dilli effortlessly carry forward this tradition, and kabootarbaazi has proven to be a beautiful way of strengthening the bond between humans and birds.

Indeed, Purani Dilli boasts a rich culture of caring for pigeons, whether it be through feeding or aptly training them. Kabootarbaazi and pigeons have become integral parts of families in and around Shahjahanabad, the honorable Purani Dilli, symbolizing its legacy and heritage.

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