Aadil Hamiz runs a glass shop in Anantnag area of Srinagar. But his outlet has been shut like other establishments to contain the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19).
His mornings start with feeding the pigeons, then training them and setting them free for a journey in the sky. By evening they are back home.
Haroon Rashid, who runs a grocery store, has also started enjoying kabootar bazi, which has its roots in the Mughal era when pigeons were used for carrying messages by the royals as well as the commoners. COVID-19 has brought back the love for pigeons to many in Kashmir, which has been under a lockdown since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 last year.
“It keeps me occupied. Caring for them and training them takes up a lot of time. It is also a good pastime for children who are not stepping out to play due to the lockdown,” Rashid says.
Apart from Kashmir, kabootar bazi remains a popular pastime in Lucknow, Agra, old Delhi, Chennai and some areas in Mumbai besides other cities. Globally, the spectator sport is popular in the US, UK, Iran, Brazil, China, Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and many other countries.
Economics of kabootar bazi
Historian Jan Wasim says Kashmiri youngsters in rural as well as urban areas are increasingly indulging in rearing and racing of pigeons as it has become an economically rewarding activity. “Some decades back, pigeon rearing had lost zeal due to lack of patrons. But now, people are buying these birds again after COVID-19 gave it a fillip,” he says.
Mohammad Yousuf, who has been rearing pigeons at his house in Anantnag since 1972, says there is a revival of interest in kabootar bazi. “I am now seeing that people in urban areas are also taking interest in the pigeon rearing. Some are buying pigeons as it helps keep small children indoors. The demand is growing," says Yousouf, whose family has been rearing pigeons for many generations.
The competition money is decided by participants collectively and can go up to a few lakhs depending on the numbers. In contests, thousands of pigeons are left to fly simultaneously by their owners from the rooftops. The winner pigeon is the one that flies without taking a break for the longest time.
Pigeon racing requires their rigorous training by trainers, called kabootarbaz. It is after many weeks of training that pigeons recognize their trainer and his voice and come back to the same rooftop.
Pigeons are trained through daily flying sessions of four to five hours. Some pigeon lovers rear thousands of pigeons. “It depends upon a person’s interest and capacity. I don’t earn money from this. It is my passion,” says Yousouf.
Apart from grains, these birds are also fed dry fruits and nuts to provide strength for sustaining long hours of flight. Two popular pigeon breeds are Kasuri and Sialkot – both high flying and intelligent. “Newer hybrid breeds of pigeons are gaining popularity along with Kabootar bazi contests,” says Wasim.
While there are public places for feeding pigeons and NGOs that look after them in Kashmir, Yousouf laments the absence of any medical facility and lack of medicines for pigeons in Kashmir. He hopes there will be a hospital in the Valley for his favourite friends one day.
(Rashmi Pratap contributed to this story)
(Sameer Mushtaq is a Kashmir-based documentary photographer & filmmaker)